The War on Drugs, which began in the 1960s, probably peaked with the 1994 Crime Bill. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 gave law enforcement agencies broad powers to arrest people for drug possession and imposed harsh sentences on defendants convicted for controlled substance charges. In the 2010s, Congress rolled back many of the provisions in the 1994 Crime Bill, and former President Barack Obama pardoned several thousand people who, in his view, received unduly harsh sentences.
Although the War on Drugs has passed its peak, it is far from over. Police officers still arrest over a million people per year for drug offenses. Close to 90 percent of these arrests are for simple possession. Aggressive enforcement continues, but jurors are less likely to sanction such tactics. Because of the opioid epidemic, many people now see drug use as a health and safety issue.
Additionally, public support for police officers recently hit an all-time low. So, many jurors no longer give police officers the benefit of the doubt in court. Due to these changes, for the first time in a long time, a Rochester criminal defense attorney has an excellent opportunity to resolve controlled substance charges successfully. That’s especially true in larger jurisdictions like Monroe County, which have designated drug courts. The judges in these courts have a special understanding of the nature of drug addiction. Therefore, they are less willing to impose harsh penalties and more likely to be interested in rehabilitation.
New York’s drug laws are loosely based on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s controlled substances schedule. It breaks down controlled substances, which could be legal or illegal to purchase, as follows:
- Schedule I: Most substances in this category, such as LSD, heroin, and methamphetamines, have a high potential for abuse and no medical use. Therefore, possession of these drugs, especially their distribution, is usually a serious felony.
- Schedule II: Under federal law, most prescription pain pills, as well as cocaine and some other street drugs, are Schedule II substances. Per the DEA, these drugs are “potentially dangerous” because they have “a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.” Schedule II offenses are usually less serious felonies.
- Schedule III: All drugs on the DEA schedule are legal to purchase from this point on. Some of them don’t even require prescriptions. Schedule III drugs include Tylenol with codeine, steroids, testosterone, and ketamine. These substances have a moderate risk of dependency and severe side effects.
- Schedule IV: Low-risk drugs include most prescription antidepressants, like Xanax, and most prescription sleep aids, like Ambien. Curiously, unlawful possession of such medication usually is a felony, even though they are low-risk drugs.
- Schedule V: Some over-the-counter drugs, primarily things like NyQuil and Robitussin, are on a store’s restricted list. Many retailers monitor and limit sales in these situations. These drugs could be dangerous. But they are more likely to be ingredients in more potent drugs.
Most Common Types of Drug Arrests
Illegal street drugs, like cocaine or heroin, and prescription pain pills, like Vicodin and Oxycontin, are the most common types of drug arrests in New York.
Street drugs usually have amount-based penalties. The more drugs the defendant possessed, the higher the penalty. There is a presumption that anyone with a significant quantity of drugs is most likely a dealer. Furthermore, possession of even a tiny amount of these drugs is usually a felony.
Illegal prescription pain pills usually have substance-based penalties. The punishment typically depends on the type of pill instead of the quantity.
Possible Defenses for Controlled Substances Charges
Controlled substance charges typically involve procedural and substantive defenses.
Procedural defenses often involve an illegal search or seizure. Usually, police officers must have search warrants to seize contraband, like illicit drugs, weapons, or pornography. A narrow search warrant exception must apply if they do not have valid warrants. Prosecutors have the burden of proof to produce a valid warrant or show that an exception applied.
Substantive defenses often involve a lack of evidence concerning possession. In New York, possession means more than proximity. The state must also establish knowledge and control. And, prosecutors must prove these elements beyond a reasonable doubt.
Drug laws and drug law enforcement have moderated, but these things are still quite harsh. For a free consultation with an experienced Rochester defense lawyer, contact the Law Office of Frank Ciardi. We routinely handle matters in Monroe County and nearby jurisdictions.