Florida Court Explains Serious Drug Offenses Under Federal Law

Federal sentencing statutes allow the courts to impose increased penalties for each subsequent conviction for a serious drug offense. It may not always be clear what constitutes a serious drug crime, however. In a recent Florida opinion issued in a drug offense case, the court discussed what constitutes a serious offense before affirming the defendant’s sentence. If you are accused of drug trafficking, it is imperative to meet with a Tampa drug crime defense lawyer as soon as possible.

Factual and Procedural Setting

It is reported that the defendant entered guilty pleas to charges of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance and other offenses. The trial court sentenced the defendant to ninety months in prison to be followed by four years of supervised release. The court, in determining the defendant was an armed career criminal, relied on three prior state law convictions for “serious drug offenses.” Specifically, it looked at his convictions for delivery of cocaine, possession or cocaine with intent to sell or deliver, and conspiracy to traffic cocaine. The defendant appealed.

Serious Drug Offenses Under Federal Law

On appeal, the defendant contested the classification of his conviction for conspiracy under state law as a “serious drug offense,” arguing three points challenging the nature of the offense and its federal implications.

The defendant’s first two arguments were rejected by the appellate court, as they contradicted established circuit precedents. While the third argument that a conspiracy conviction cannot be a “serious drug offense” until an actual controlled substance is involved was not foreclosed by precedent, the court found that the defendant waived the argument.

The court emphasized that to preserve an argument for appeal, it must be raised at the district court during sentencing. Since the defendant failed to do so, the court conducted a plain error review, requiring him to demonstrate that an error occurred, that it was plain, that it affected his substantial rights, and that it seriously affected the fairness of the proceedings.

The court found that even if there was an error, it was not plain, as there was no explicit precedent from the Supreme Court or the Eleventh Circuit instructing the district court that conspiracies are never serious drug offenses under the relevant law. The court affirmed the trial court’s decision, stating that the question of whether a conspiracy conviction can be a “serious drug offense” remains open, and no recent precedent conclusively settled the matter. Therefore, any error was not “plain,” and the trial court’s decision was affirmed.

Meet with an Experienced Tampa Criminal Defense Attorney

Many drug crimes are considered serious offenses, and convictions for multiple drug crimes can result in lengthy prison sentences. If you are charged with a drug offense, you should contact an attorney to discuss your potential defenses. The experienced Tampa drug crime defense lawyers of Hanlon Law are well-versed in what it takes to prevail in criminal proceedings, and if we represent you, we will advocate zealously on your behalf. You can reach Hanlon Law by using the form online or by calling us at 813-228-7095 to set up a consultation.