Dallas Federal Crime Lawyer John Helms Educates Federal Drug Cases

Federal Drug Cases In Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, and Sherman:  What Does The Drug Quantity In The Charge Mean?

In federal drug cases, such as distribution or conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine, or heroin, the accused will be charged in an indictment with distributing or conspiracy to distribute a certain quantity of drugs.  For example, an indictment might charge a person with distributing 50 grams of actual methamphetamine, or 500 grams of a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine. I am often asked what these quantities mean for the accused.  Specifically, do they mean that these are the quantities that the judge would consider at sentencing if the defendant is convicted?  

The answer is that these are the quantities that the Government would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt at trial in order to get a conviction.  They also determine the lower and upper limits of the possible punishment that the defendant could receive, with certain exceptions. However, they do NOT limit the quantity of drugs that the judge can consider at sentencing.  Let’s use some examples to show how it works.

If a person is charged with distribution, or conspiracy to distribute, 50 grams of actual methamphetamine, or 500 grams of a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine, then federal law provides that, if they are convicted, the person must get a sentence of not less than ten years and not more than life.  See 21 USC section 841(b)(1)(A)(viii). At trial, the Government would have to prove that the defendant was responsible for either 50 grams of actual methamphetamine or 500 grams of a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine in order to get a guilty verdict. Proving either one is enough.

Now, let’s say the person is charged with 5 grams of actual methamphetamine, or 50 grams of a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine.  For these lower amounts, the penalty range is no less than five years, and no more than 40 years. See 21 USC section 841(b)(1)(B)(vii), but at trial, the Government only has to prove one of these lower amounts.

As a defendant, you would rather face a penalty range of 5-40 years than 10-life.  So, what determines which of these charges you will get? The answer is, normally, it is the prosecutor.  In most U.S. Attorney’s offices, the individual prosecutors can decide which of these they want to charge.

Now, let’s say that a person is caught with 1000 grams (1 kilo) of actual methamphetamine.  A prosecutor could charge that person with possession with intent to distribute 5 grams of actual methamphetamine (5-40 year range), or 50 grams of actual methamphetamine (10 years-life range).  Since 1000 grams is more than 5 grams, and also more than 50 grams, proof of 1000 grams at trial is enough for a conviction for either charge.

But if a prosecutor can prove 50 grams, meaning a sentence of 10 years to life, why would the prosecutor charge only 5 grams, meaning a sentence of 5 to 40 years?  The answer is that the prosecutor might be willing to charge the lower crime as part of a plea-bargaining strategy to offer the defendant a better deal for a guilty plea.  However, if the defendant does not want to plead guilty, the prosecutor might increase the charge to 50 grams for trial. The ability to plead guilty in order to get a lower range of punishment might be very attractive to some defendants.

Now, let’s say that a defendant is caught with 1000 grams of actual methamphetamine, but is convicted of distribution of 5 grams of actual methamphetamine.  Does this mean that the judge can only consider that the defendant distributed 5 grams at sentencing? The answer is “no.” At sentencing, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are clear that the judge can consider the entire quantity of drugs for which the defendant is responsible.  So, the defendant’s Sentencing Guideline recommended range will be based on 1000 grams of actual methamphetamine, rather than 5 grams. However, because the charge of conviction was 5 grams of actual methamphetamine, the possible range of punishment is 5-40 years.

In these examples, we have considered one charge with a minimum of 5 years and one with a minimum of 10 years.  There are two exceptions that allow a defendant to get a sentence below the minimum. The first is if the defendant qualifies for the “safety valve,” and the second is if the defendant cooperates with the Government and provides “substantial assistance” in the investigation or prosecution of another person.  These two exceptions are complicated, and I have written articles about both of them. I will simply point out here that these two exceptions exist.

As you can probably tell, federal drug cases are complicated and involve a lot of variables.  In order to determine what is best for you—whether that is a trial or a plea agreement—you need the advice of an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer to help you understand your options and what risks and benefits each option includes.  If you or a loved one is facing federal drug distribution or conspiracy charges in Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, or Sherman, Texas, contact a Dallas criminal defense lawyer who can analyze your case to help you understand the choices you have to make, and who is willing and able to fight for you, regardless of what choice you decide to make.  

About the Author John Helms Dallas Criminal Attorney 

John Helms Dallas Criminal Attorney is a  renowned Texas criminal justice trial attorney with over 20 years in the field of law. As a federal criminal prosecutor for the Northern District of Texas, he never lost a trial or an appeal.


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