By: Mark Diaz
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How Does Law Enforcement Prove Drug Trafficking in Texas?
Police do not have the burden of proof in the same way as a prosecutor, but there are certain standards law enforcement must meet to arrest someone for drug trafficking in Texas. To best understand them, it is first necessary to comprehend key definitions. Drug “trafficking” is actually a term of art. The Texas Controlled Substances Act uses the term “distribute” to describe the crime of delivering controlled substances or possessing drugs with the intent to deliver them. When police gather evidence through an investigation or observe these illegal activities, they may have sufficient proof to arrest you for drug trafficking.
However, there are two points to keep in mind about these cases:
- The standard for making an arrest is very different from what the government must prove for a conviction.
- In the quest to meet the burden of an arrest (probable cause), police may engage in misconduct that affects your constitutional rights.
As such, there is much more to the criminal process than knowing how law enforcement proves drug trafficking in Texas. In fact, an arrest is just the beginning of your case. There are multiple opportunities to fight the charges, including strategies based on the two points mentioned above. Galveston drug trafficking lawyers are knowledgeable about potential options, so you can best leverage your defense opportunities by retaining representation as early on in the process as possible. An overview of drug trafficking laws in Texas is also useful.
Legal Requirements for a Drug Trafficking Arrest
A criminal case begins either by the police making an arrest after observing criminal activity or by obtaining an arrest warrant where the police must articulate the basis for probable cause for the arrest in an affidavit. There are two standards that apply before law enforcement can detain, search, or arrest someone for criminal charges. Though they are often used interchangeably, the subtle differences are important:
- Reasonable Suspicion: The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) determined decades ago that police can only briefly detain someone if they have reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, is, or is about to be committed. This standard is highly subjective and based upon officers’ impressions; however, there must be more than a hunch or gut feeling to detain.
- Probable Cause: The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution protects your right to be free from unlawful search and seizure. Law enforcement must first establish probable cause and convince a judge to issue an arrest warrant before making an arrest.
However, there is an exception in some cases. Under “exigent” circumstances, officers can arrest a person even without a warrant if the situation would lead a reasonable person to believe that doing so is necessary to protect others.
Essentially, the difference between the two concepts is that probable cause requires more evidence of criminal activity. The level of proof is lower for reasonable suspicion because police are merely detaining someone rather than placing them under arrest.
Evidence in Drug Trafficking Cases
With a better understanding of what standards must be met before law enforcement can detain and/or arrest someone, it is important to know what types of evidence police would use to support their position.
- The controlled substance in any form, since the type, weight, and/or volume will determine the specific violation of Texas drug distribution laws.
- Large amounts of cash.
- Drug paraphernalia, including devices for storage, production, cultivation, processing, growing, and compounding controlled substances.
- Firearms and other deadly weapons.
- Phone records reveal communications about a drug trafficking scheme, such as calls, voice mails, and text messages.
- Content from your social media profile, including posts, comments, check-ins, videos, and photo images.
- Many other types of evidence proving the drug distribution elements are described below.
Keep in mind that evidence in a drug trafficking case serves two purposes from the perspective of officers. On one hand, they need proof to support the reasonable suspicion standard to detain you. From there, police must have probable cause to arrest. On the other, law enforcement is also working to help the prosecution meet its burden – which is much higher. Officers are not just investigating and gathering evidence to arrest: They will also seize any and all proof that could be used to convict later on in the proceeding.
What the Prosecution Must Prove for a Conviction
The role of law enforcement is to protect the public and enforce the law by arresting suspected offenders. It is the prosecutor’s job to take the evidence collected by police and use it to obtain a drug trafficking conviction. The government’s burden in these and other criminal cases is the highest and most difficult burden to meet in the legal profession: Proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If there is an iota of question or minuscule lack of evidence (amounting to reasonable doubt), the finder of fact MUST acquit the defendant. In many drug distribution cases, the jury will make the decision, but the judge is the finder of fact in a bench trial in the alternative.
As another challenge, the prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt with respect to every element of the crime. As such, to convict you of drug trafficking, the government must have evidence showing the following non-exhaustive elements:
- You possessed or otherwise exercised control over a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia.
- You intentionally or knowingly delivered the drugs or circumstances indicate that you possessed controlled substances with the intent to traffic.
- The controlled substance is listed in one of the Penalty Groups established by the Texas Controlled Substances Act.
Issues with Unlawfully Obtained Evidence
Whether they are working to establish reasonable suspicion, show probable cause, or support the prosecution, police are limited in what they can do to gather proof. In their zeal to collect evidence, officers may violate your constitutional rights. The Fourth Amendment is a very powerful protection, imposing serious consequences for police misconduct. The ramifications do not involve a fine or punishment for offending officers like you might expect. Instead, the upshot of violating your Fourth Amendment rights is much more impactful – in your favor.
Therefore, if the police do not have reasonable suspicion, a warrant, or other probable cause, ALL evidence they collect from the very moment of the violation is inadmissible. In the practice of law, this concept is called the “exclusionary rule” because the judge must toss it upon a showing that the police violated your constitutional rights. It is also referred to as “fruit from the poison tree” – from the point of the constitutional rights violation, the evidence is tainted. Without this important proof, the prosecution may not be able to meet its burden.
Other Defenses in Drug Trafficking Cases
The exclusionary rule can sometimes result in a dismissal or acquittal at trial, but there are other options for defending drug trafficking charges. You will get the chance to expose weaknesses in the government’s case when it is the prosecutor’s turn to present evidence, especially when your attorney conducts cross-examination. In addition, when the prosecution rests, you will have the opportunity to raise such defenses as:
- You did not have actual or constructive possession of the drugs
- Mistake about the nature of the contraband
- Entrapment by officials
- The alleged controlled substance doesn’t fall under one of the prescribed Penalty Group prohibited substances
FAQs About Texas Drug Trafficking Laws
In addition to the above information, it is helpful to learn the answers to the most frequently asked questions Galveston drug trafficking lawyers receive:
- How could I be arrested for possession with intent to distribute? Even if nothing of value was exchanged and you took no steps to traffic in drugs, officers could arrest you for possession with intent to distribute. Police may gather evidence at the scene to indicate that you were planning a drug trafficking scheme. One of the most powerful forms of proof for the prosecution will be the large amount of the controlled substance, which contradicts a claim that the drugs were for personal use. Further, if the controlled substance was also confiscated with a nearby scale or larger sums of money, that may trigger this type of arrest, as well.
- What are the penalties if I am convicted of drug trafficking in Texas? The punishment varies according to the associated Penalty Group, weight or volume of the drugs, and surrounding circumstances. At a minimum, you face state jail felony charges punishable by 180 days to 2 years in jail. However, drug trafficking can be charged up to a first-degree felony. Penalties include up to life in prison.
- What are other options to resolve drug distribution charges? Plea bargaining might knock the charges down from a higher level felony and, in turn, your punishment is reduced. You might also be eligible for various programs that are similar to probation, some of which also include a treatment component for those who are addicted to drugs and committing offenses due to that addiction alone.
Discuss Strategies with Our Galveston Drug Trafficking Lawyers
As you can see, even when you know how law enforcement proves drug trafficking in Texas, there are many additional details that affect your case. You put your rights at risk unless you have skilled legal representation to take advantage of all defense opportunities.
If you are facing charges for drug distribution, please contact criminal defense attorney Mark Diaz. Individuals in Greater Houston and Galveston County can call 409-515-6170 to set up a free consultation with a Texas drug trafficking defense lawyer. Once we evaluate your circumstances, we can begin developing a solid legal strategy.