Possession of a Firearm in Relation to a Drug Trafficking Crime or Crime of Violence under 18 U.S.C. 924(c)

A “924(c)” firearm charge is fairly common offense in federal criminal cases.  It is often a companion charge to drug trafficking, Hobbs Act Robbery, or other charges.

As the name suggests, this statute makes it a federal crime to possess a firearm “during and in relation to” a crime of violence or drug trafficking offense.  This is the basic definition, but what else should you know about this offense?

How this charge can be proved

First, many courts have given a broad definition to the “in relation to” element.  For example, if a person is convicted of selling drugs, and kept firearms in their home but did not use them, they could potentially be exposed to a 924(c) charge as well.

Why?  Because, courts have reasoned, maybe they would use those guns if someone tried to rob them of their money or drug stash.  The bottom line is that the government may only have to prove a tenuous connection between the drugs and guns in order to prove up the 924(c) charge.

Mandatory prison time

The penalty for this offense is unusual as well – 5 years, no more, no less.  This is one of the rare offenses where the judge has no discretion at all as to what sentence to give.  The judge may be of the opinion that five years is too severe – the law requires the judge to impose it anyway.

For this reason, a 924(c) charge should be avoided at all costs.

A gift to prosecutors

Because of the ease of proving this offense, and the automatic prison term, it makes an ideal bargaining chip for the government.  Many defendants have been persuaded to plead guilty to serious drug trafficking charges based on the explicit or implicit threat of a 924(c) charge.

But what if you have a valid defense to the drug trafficking charge and/or the gun charge?  An experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to help you counter the government’s leverage.

Seek legal counsel

If you are facing a 924(c) charge – seek legal counsel immediately.  You may have a viable defense to the charge.  Did the gun in question actually belong to someone else?  Was the gun related to the drug or violent crime?  Do you have a defense to the underlying charge?  A federal criminal attorney can help you investigate these and other potential defenses.

And, if the government’s proof on the gun charge is solid, your attorney may be able to help you avoid the mandatory time through a plea bargain to the related charge, or through other means.

If you or someone you know may be facing a 924(c) charge, feel free to contact us for a free consultation.

What is the safety valve? How does it affect sentences in federal drug cases?

The federal safety valve is a provision of law that allows a district court to sentence a defendant convicted of drug trafficking below the applicable mandatory minimum.  Here is some information about how it works.

A Powerful Legal Tool for Avoiding Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

In federal drug cases, a defendant may face a mandatory minimum of five or 10 years if the amount of controlled substances involved in the case is sufficiently high.  The mandatory minimum can be even higher if the defendant used firearms or has prior drug convictions.

The district court ordinarily has no power to sentence a defendant below the mandatory minimum, even if the judge strongly believes that such a sentence is too high.  However, if a defendant qualifies for the safety valve, the mandatory minimum sentence no longer applies (and the sentencing guidelines will be lower as well).  So how does one take advantage of this powerful provision of law?

How to Qualify for Safety Valve

The safety valve, as codified in 18 U.S.C. 3553, provides a sort of lifeline to defendants convicted of serious drug offenses who have little or no criminal history. For the safety valve to apply, the judge must find at sentencing that each of the five criteria listed in the statute are met, not the least of which is the requirement that the defendant not have more than one criminal history point under the federal sentencing guidelines.  The other criteria are (in simplified layman’s terms):

–  no violence or firearms involved;

–  no death or serious injury to any person;

–  the defendant was not a leader of a criminal enterprise;

–  the defendant must be truthful with the government about his or her criminal conduct.

Do you qualify for safety valve relief?

In some cases, it is clear from the beginning that a defendant will qualify for the safety valve. In other cases, the issue is hotly contested and a defendant may not know for sure until the day of sentencing whether he or she will qualify for safety valve relief.  For example, there may be a dispute as to whether the defendant was a “leader” or whether he or she has been truthful with the government.

In the latter category of cases, it is important to do everything possible to maximize the chances of qualifying for the safety valve, a process that commences from the very start of the case.  An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can help you put on the most powerful case possible for safety valve sentencing if your eligibility is subject to dispute.

If you need more information on this important provision of federal criminal law, please contact us for a free consultation.

Defending prescription drug cases in the federal courts

The dramatic increase in narcotic pain medication prescriptions in the United States over the last twenty some years has resulted in a thriving black market for these highly addictive drugs.  Prescription pain medications that are frequently abused include oxycontin or oxycodone, roxycodone, percocet, actiq, dilaudid, and many others.  Law enforcement has responded by aggressively investigating and prosecuting prescription drug cases.  If you are reading this page, perhaps you are concerned that yourself or someone you know may be investigated or charged for a crime involving prescription fraud.  What should you know about these kinds of cases?

Where these cases come from

First, many prescription drug fraud investigations begin with an arrest by local police, perhaps involving an individual attempting to pass a fake prescription at a pharmacy.  If it appears that the individual arrested has ties to other individuals distributing significant quantities of pain medication, federal law enforcement may take over the case.

The federal government also prosecutes doctors and other health care professionals for prescription fraud.  How does the government prove that these medical professionals were essentially dealing drugs rather than treating their patients’ pain?  That is a difficult question, which is often a matter of contention where medical professionals are targeted by law enforcement.

Penalties for prescription drug fraud

In many instances, the federal investigation results in indictment(s) for conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.  Unlike many other federal drug charges, federal prescription drug charges do not carry mandatory minimums.  However, the federal sentencing guidelines call for heavy sentences where the number of pills involved is high (as, in federal cases, it usually is).  Moreover, as in all federal drug cases, the individual charged is often held responsible not just for pills they personally distributed, but for the total number of pills distributed by the alleged conspiracy.   Sentences exceeding ten years are not uncommon.

Seek legal counsel as soon as possible

If you believe that you or someone you know is being investigated for prescription drug fraud, contact a federal criminal defense lawyer immediately.  Hiring a lawyer before arrest and/or charges dramatically improves your chances of favorably resolving the case.  If charges are inevitable, your federal criminal attorney can pursue many avenues to contest them, or to negotiate a favorable resolution, as the circumstances of your case may dictate.

If you have other questions, please contact us for a free consult.