Federal Drug Cases: Could You Be A Leader or Supervisor Of A Drug Trafficking Organization Without Knowing It?

As a former federal prosecutor and experienced federal criminal defense lawyer, Attorney John Helms explains the enhancement for being an organizer or leader in federal drug cases.

In federal drug cases involving methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, or any other illegal drug, a convicted defendant can get a longer sentence if the defendant is an “organizer or leader” or a “manager or supervisor” of a group of people.  This is because, all other things being equal, those that are higher up in an organization should normally get a longer sentence than those who are lower in the group.

In federal criminal cases, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines give federal judges an advisory range of months for a defendant’s sentence, depending on the seriousness of the defendant’s conduct, (called the “offense level”), and the defendant’s criminal history.  The Federal Sentencing Guidelines include enhancements for people who are higher up in a criminal organization. The enhancement means points are added to the defendant’s offense level score, and the higher the offense level, the higher the range of months will be.

Section 3B1.1 of the Sentencing Guidelines sets forth the potential upward enhancements for a person’s role in the criminal activity:

Based on the defendant’s role in the offense, increase the offense level as follows:

(a)       If the defendant was an organizer or leader of a criminal activity that involved five or more participants or was otherwise extensive, increase by 4 levels.

(b)      If the defendant was a manager or supervisor (but not an organizer or leader) and the criminal activity involved five or more participants or was otherwise extensive, increase by 3 levels.

(c)       If the defendant was an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor in any criminal activity other than described in (a) or (b), increase by 2 levels.

Under section 3B1.1, if the criminal activity is extensive, meaning there are five or more participants or that the activity is “otherwise extensive,” an “organizer or leader” gets four points added to the offense level.  A “manager or supervisor” of this level of activity gets two additional points. An “organizer or leader” or a “manager or supervisor” of any criminal activity that is less extensive than “five or more participants,” or activity that is “otherwise extensive” gets two points.

All of this raises the questions:  What is an “organizer or leader,” what is a “manager or supervisor,” and how do these concepts apply in federal drug cases?  Federal cases do not define these terms very clearly, and what these terms include often surprises people.

For one thing, many people are surprised to learn that these enhancements do not apply only to organizations like the mafia, gangs, or drug cartels.  They apply to any group of people that work together to commit a crime, even if they are only loosely organized. For example, they apply to a group of five friends who agree to sell drugs together as a purely part-time activity.

What is reasonably clear is that an “organizer or leader” is someone who exercises a significant degree of control over the activities of the others who are involved.  This means that they generally have the authority to direct the activities of others, such as by telling others to pick up drug shipments, bring money to someone, or in any way assist with the criminal activities.  

On the other hand, a “manager or supervisor” generally only needs to have some degree of control over one or more people in the criminal activity.  What this often includes can be very surprising. For example, if a defendant has one person who regularly runs drug-related errands for them, or sometimes takes care of the person’s customers, that defendant might be a manager or a supervisor.  

Sometimes, the line between such a person just doing a favor for someone and being directed by someone is very unclear, but it can have a significant effect on the defendant’s Sentencing Guideline range.  An experienced federal criminal defense lawyer knows how to make a persuasive case at sentencing that the organizer/leader or manager/supervisor enhancement should not apply. This can involve using the investigative reports in the case, citing case law to the court, and calling witnesses at the sentencing hearing that can include the case agent, the defendant and possibly even co-defendant.  

Even if the judge rules that one of these enhancements applies, a persuasive argument can often be made that, even if the enhancement literally applies, it overstates the degree of control or influence of the defendant.  This can be the basis for an argument that the judge should depart downward or sentence the defendant at the low end of the Guideline range.

In federal drug cases, there are often difficult sentencing issues like the organizer/leader and manager/supervisor enhancements.  If you or a loved one is charged with a federal drug crime, you should hire an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer who knows how to navigate the difficult legal and factual issues that come up in these cases.      


Media Contact:

Attorney John Helms

T: 214-666-8010