If you’ve been charged with trafficking a controlled substance or another serious drug crime, it’s likely the result of a thorough drug investigation process–possibly by several law enforcement agencies over a long period of time. You may face drug trafficking charges if the authorities’ investigation has produced evidence that you sold drugs, came into possession of drugs with the intent to sell them, or assisted someone else in distributing drugs. You may even get charged even if you never laid your hands on drugs. As long as you and at least one other person planned to traffic drugs, and took a concrete step towards completing your scheme, you may face conspiracy drug charges.
No matter the type of drug offense you are charged with, you will need a skilled and dedicated criminal defense lawyer by your side. The key to your freedom may lie in carefully unraveling the investigation that led to your arrest, and demonstrating where law enforcement agencies overstepped their legal authority. If you’ve been suddenly charged with drug trafficking or another serious drug offense in Virginia, contact Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico right away at (540) 343-9349 and schedule a free initial consultation with an experienced Roanoke drug lawyer.
What Government Agencies Investigate Drug Trafficking?
Today, it’s common for several local, state, and federal government agencies to collaborate in drug trafficking investigations. At the federal level, the following agencies frequently contribute to these types of drug investigations:
- Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)–The DEA is the Department of Justice law enforcement agency dedicated to drug crime. Acting both within and beyond the nation’s borders, the DEA is involved in investigating all sizes and types of drug trafficking, cultivating, and manufacturing operations.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)–The FBI is the Department of Justice’s primary law enforcement agency, which focuses on the investigation of a variety of serious federal and state offenses, including organized crime, corporate fraud, serial murders, and terrorism. The FBI’s role in investigating the mafia and gangs places the agency on the front lines of the war on drugs.
- Department of Homeland Security (DHS)–DHS includes the Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), all of which are instrumental in operations to intercept drugs at the nation’s borders.
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)–As its name indicates, the ATF is not tasked with enforcing the nation’s drug laws. But the trafficking of narcotics and weapons often go hand in hand, so ATF investigations sometimes lead to drug trafficking prosecutions.
- National Security Agency (NSA)–The NSA collects and analyses communications data from around the globe, some of which is forwarded to the DEA’s special operations division (SOD) and the FBI.
- Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)–The CIA regularly provides the DEA, FBI, ATF, and DHS with intelligence regarding international drug trafficking operations.
- Regional Drug Task Force – This a combined force of local, state, and federal law enforcement committed to providing full-time attention to the enforcement of drug laws in Virginia, and supporting other law enforcement agencies in their efforts.
With most cases, the state police play a vital role in drug investigations because they have jurisdiction over interstate highways, through which much of the nation’s illegal drugs circulate. In Virginia for example, state police troopers frequently pull over and search vehicles suspected to contain controlled substances.
At the county and municipal level, local police and sheriff departments are on the front lines of drug investigations. With firsthand knowledge of the communities they serve, the local law enforcement agencies are essential in understanding– and disrupting–the flow of drugs into the streets and into the hands of consumers. Additionally, these local police agencies often serve in a supporting role in state police and DEA anti-drug operations.
What Kind Techniques Do Drug Investigators Use?
Every drug investigation is different. And as criminal networks grow in sophistication, so do the methods used to disrupt them. Law enforcement may rely on any of the following investigative methods or types of evidence in building their cases against drug trafficking suspects:
- Informants–One of the most effective ways of dismantling a trafficking ring is to get its members to testify against one another in court. The authorities are able to convince suspects to become informants by offering them immunity from prosecution, or release if they are already incarcerated. The problem is, informants may be willing to supply completely fabricated testimony just to secure their freedom.
- Undercover agents–Law enforcement officers sometimes spend years undercover, gaining the trust of drug traffickers and gathering evidence on their operations. In other cases, the undercover agent may pose as the seller or buyer of the drugs, observe the transaction, and then make the arrest.
- Controlled delivery–When the post office or customs agency suspects that a package contains drugs, they may alert law enforcement. A courier or post office employee will then deliver the package to the intended recipient, but under law enforcement surveillance. Once the recipient signs for the package, the police make the arrest .
- Searches and seizures–Generally, the police need a warrant or your consent to search your home. But sometimes, such as when they suspect evidence is being destroyed or they are in hot pursuit of a suspect, they can enter your home without a warrant or the occupant’s consent. For vehicles, the standard is lower. The police only need probable cause (often supplied by a K9 unit) to believe there are drugs in the truck or car before making a search.
- Communication records–Federal agencies are increasingly able to access phone, text, and email records in the context of criminal investigations. A warrant is usually required if the suspect is an American citizen or on American soil. But in some cases, federal agencies like the FBI or NSA only need a subpoena to access telephone call logs. Government agencies can access your email records by subpoena once they are 180 days old. It is also possible for investigators to obtain your IP address and create logs of the websites you visit.
- Wiretaps–Law enforcement agencies need a warrant to install a wiretap on your phone line, which enables them to listen to and record your phone calls. It’s also possible for investigators to remotely activate the microphone of your mobile phone and listen to what might be taking place around you.
- Monitored Jail Calls — While relying on wiretapped calls to build cases seems to be on the decline in Virginia, using evidence from recorded jail calls is not. A warrant is not required to monitor a jailhouse phone conversation, so if you discuss the details of an illicit activity while in custody, these conversations can be recorded and used to either strengthen an existing case or build a new drug case against you and the person you are speaking with.
- Surveillance–In addition to accessing your phone for listening purposes, investigators can follow your movements by tracking your phone. With a warrant, investigators can also place GPS tracking devices on your vehicle. In addition to these high tech surveillance techniques, law enforcement still uses classic methods such as following suspects and recording video or making photographs. They may also use ultra-sensitive audio recording devices to listen in on conversations happening at a distance, or even inside buildings.
- Trash runs–Once your trash is on the curb, the police have every right to look through it. Often times, these so-called “trash runs” or “trash pulls” produce evidence of drug trafficking. This evidence could be drug residue, byproducts of manufacturing, or even documents that connect you to a trafficking operation.
- Chemical forensics–In court, the prosecutor will need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were caught with a controlled substance. The only way to conclusively identify a substance is to perform a rigorous chemical analysis in a laboratory. These tests are so precise that they can even identify traces of drugs embedded in papers or fabrics that investigators pull from your trash.
- Financial records–Drug trafficking operations effectively become cash laundering operations once they reach a certain size. At this point, investigators may approach a drug case by trying to uncover the way in which the suspect is hiding drug money. Bank statements, corporate records, and even evidence of real estate transactions may all be used to piece together the financial operations of drug traffickers.
Within weeks, these investigative techniques may produce enough evidence for a judge to issue a warrant for your arrest and for a prosecutor to charge you with drug trafficking. But in some cases, it may take years for investigators to get enough evidence to show probable cause. This means that, by the time you are charged with a crime, you may have broken your ties with criminals and moved on with your life. Unfortunately, your shadowy past may still come back to haunt you.
Are All of These Drug Investigation Techniques Legal?
Some of the investigative techniques described above may yield evidence that connects you with criminal activity, but a prosecutor may be unable to use that information in court. In some cases, the agents investigating you may have failed to obtain a warrant before accessing your electronic devices, making that evidence illegal. In other cases, the investigation may have used confidential sources or top-secret technology that the government does not want to be disclosed in a public court of law.
Essentially, many of the techniques used to track down drug traffickers exist in a legal grey area. Prosecutors may be unwilling to use the resulting evidence in their cases for ethical reasons. Defense attorneys may be able to raise constitutional issues with the evidence, and have the charges dismissed as a result. So federal agencies have to be creative in how they use their illegal evidence.
As Reuters reported in 2013, federal agencies such as the DEA use a case building technique called “parallel construction” to avoid any potential legal or confidentiality issues with the evidence from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, and informants that they may have used to catch you. Leaked powerpoint slides from a DEA training seminar instruct agents to use “normal investigative techniques to recreate the information provided by SOD [Special Operations Division].”
The technique of parallel construction is best illustrated through example. Imagine the DEA is conducting warrantless surveillance of a foreign national suspected of drug trafficking. One day, the foreign suspect calls an American and reveals details about a drug shipment within the United States. The DEA knows who the driver will be, where he’s going, and what vehicle he’s driving. But since the phone call producing this information involved an American, and was not authorized by a warrant, the DEA cannot simply arrest the American suspect and charge him with trafficking. The suspect’s defense lawyer would likely get the charges dismissed.
Instead, the DEA can obtain the prosecution of the American drug trafficker by creating an alternate–and legal–source of the evidence. The DEA might tip off the state police regarding the suspect’s vehicle. If the state police follow the suspected vehicle long enough, they are bound to notice a traffic infraction such as a failure to use a turn signal. This will give the police legal authority to make a traffic stop. At this point, they can use a K9 unit to produce the probable cause to search the vehicle and find the drug shipment.
Thus, an illegal use of wiretapping against an American citizen may still result in a successful investigation and prosecution for drug trafficking. Even the prosecutor and the judge may be unaware of the abuse of authority at the source of the investigation. Of course, the suspect’s defense attorney will be unable to use this hidden fact to request the dismissal of the charges. There’s no telling how many drug trafficking cases originate from parallel construction.
The Need for Aggressive Defense to Drug Trafficking Charges
The vast majority of drug trafficking cases end before trial because the suspect pleads guilty to the charges. Federal and state prosecutors often pressure defendants into accepting plea bargains by warning them that any resistance or attempt to assert their rights will result in more serious charges and harsher penalties. At trial, however, your guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt, which gives you a good argument for an acquittal if you have a skilled criminal defense lawyer handling your case. And even if a victory at trial is unlikely, your lawyer can work to negotiate a more advantageous plea agreement that minimizes the negative impact on your life.
When so much time passes in an investigation there is a much greater chance of human error and a knowledgeable defense attorney will know how to exploit the flaws in a long, drawn-out drug case. When drugs are confiscated they need to be properly analyzed. This means they are sent to labs and handled by more people than you may suspect. This process can take a long time, sometimes even years in a federal case. This puts a lot of pressure on prosecutors to close cases and get convictions quickly. Additionally, when members of law enforcement cut corners in a case, your rights can be violated and any evidence collected as a result can be excluded with help from your lawyer.
That’s why if you are being actively investigated or already charged with a substantial drug crime, you should talk to a Roanoke drug attorney before pleading guilty or even speaking to the police. At Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico, we have a proven track record of fighting on behalf of our clients and obtaining positive case outcomes as a result. If you’ve been charged with drug trafficking, call us today at (540) 343-9349 for free and confidential case consultation with one of our criminal defense lawyers.