(California Health and Safety Code section 11350 H.S., et seq.)
Drug crimes cover many different offenses, ranging from simple possession of marijuana to large-scale manufacturing and distribution of heroin. We have a great deal of experience, and have enjoyed much success, in defending almost every type of drug violation, including major distribution cases involving multi-kilogram lots of cocaine, for example. Our clients range from juveniles caught with personal quantities of illegal substances, to major drug traffickers, as well as marijuana dispensary owners charged with misdemeanors by the City Attorney’s Office for lacking proper licensing.
When it comes to a possession charge, however, the police must have seized a useable amount of the drug for the charge to be viable. Thus, simply having a smear of cocaine powder in a paper bindle will not be enough to prosecute.
Most people assume that you can only be charged with trafficking if you sell illegal narcotics when, in fact, you can be convicted for simply handing drugs out at a party, for example. In other words, a monetary transaction is not required. And, of course, you can also face heavy penalties for transporting illicit substances.
Simple possession is typically charged as a misdemeanor, depending on the quantity of the controlled substance, but can also be prosecuted as a felony. Other violations, including possession with intent to distribute, are prosecuted as felonies.
In fact, the state Health & Safety Code includes many different provisions that address virtually every type of conceivable drug violation. See, for example, H.&S.C. sections 11350 H.S. (possession of controlled substances – again, a misdemeanor); 11351 H.S. (possession with intent to sell, a felony); 11352 H.S. (sale or transportation, a felony); 11364 H.S. (paraphernalia, misdemeanor); 11377 H.S. (possession of meth, misdemeanor); 11379.6 H.S. (manufacturing, felony); 11383 H.S. & 11383.5 H.S. (possession of manufacturing materials, felonies); and 11550 H.S. (being under the influence, misdemeanor).
Finally, Los Angeles County is a particularly fertile area for narcotics arrests, due largely to the popular nightlife scene, DUI checkpoints, widespread gang activity, and proximity to the Tijuana border.
Sample Misdemeanor Narcotics Offenses
– In 2007, actress Lindsay Lohan (Mean Girls) was pulled over for suspicion of driving while intoxicated. When the police officers searched her, they allegedly found a small amount of cocaine on her person. Although she was initially charged with and arraigned for a felony, but after completing a ninety-day residential rehab program, she was able to plead down to a misdemeanor with ten days of community service and three years of formal probation (including mandatory, random drug testing).
– In December 2019, a marijuana dispensary located on Melrose Avenue at Larchmont Boulevard in Los Angeles was raided by the LAPD’s Hollywood Narcotics Division and LAPD Cannabis Support Unit for allegedly operating without a legal license. Four misdemeanor arrests were executed, and almost fourteen pounds of marijuana was seized, as well as three hundred and five dollars in cash.
– At the end of November 2019, R&B singer Chico DeBarge (a.k.a. Jonathan A. DeBarge) of the successful ‘80s group DeBarge (who hit big with the single Rhythm Of The Night), was arrested for misdemeanor possession of crystal methamphetamine. According to police, DeBarge was arrested in the parking lot of a Walmart in Burbank after he was spotted trying to use a wire coat hanger to unlock a parked car, which turned out to be his. (He had locked his keys inside.) During their questioning, police patted him down and allegedly discovered a small amount of methamphetamine, as well as drug paraphernalia. DeBarge had previously served five years in a Michigan state prison in the early ‘90s after a cocaine-trafficking conviction.
Sample Felony Narcotics Offenses
– In late June 1996, actor Robert Downey Junior (The Avengers) was pulled over by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy while driving in his black Ford Explorer down PCH in Malibu. He was allegedly going seventy miles per hour and weaving. A search of his SUV allegedly revealed just under half-a-gram of black-tar heroin, one-and-a-half grams of powdered cocaine, and a third-of-a-gram of crack, which together resulted in him being charged with felony possession. In mid-September 1996, he pled no contest (which in California is essentially a guilty plea but without admitting fault) to felony drug possession.
– In early December 2019, two alleged drug dealers were arrested in Corte Madera (Marin County) after police allegedly caught them watching porn on an iPhone while sitting in a parked car. After police conducted a search of their vehicle, they allegedly found ten pounds of high-grade marijuana individually packed for sale, an undisclosed amount of LSD, and numerous syringes filled with liquid crystal meth. Luke A. Sawyer and Amy M. Hunsaker were both arrested on felony charges of possession with intent to sell. Police claimed when they approached the car, they were able to see in plain view a small amount of marijuana, used syringes, and a bullet. In addition, Sawyer was charged with felony possession of ammunition.
– In late November 2019, Butte County (Chico metropolitan area) Sheriff’s deputies arrested twelve men after allegedly discovering over $160,000 in cash in one of the defendant’s vehicles during a routine traffic stop. According to a BCSD spokesperson, the twelve men had ties to Mexican drug cartels. During the raid, deputies allegedly destroyed more than 1,200 viable cannabis plants, seized almost one thousand pounds of finished product, over $14,000 in cash, two illegal semi-automatic assault rifles, three handguns, and a bullet-proof Kevlar vest. Roberto Estrada was arrested for allegedly maintaining a residence for the purpose of drug sales, as well as for felony charges for employing a person under 18 to sell marijuana; and felony possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Nestor Ortiz was also charged with maintaining the residence and possession with intent to sell, as well as with felony cultivation of marijuana. Everyone else was charged with felony cultivation.
Various Defenses to Drug-Crime Charges
In possession-for-sale cases, your attorney should always try to attack what is known as indicia of sales, meaning all items that the police and Assistant DA in charge believe evidence your intent to distribute. Your lawyer should even have an expert witness testify that these items do not necessarily mean you were dealing (for example, the large quantity was intended to feed your drug habit, and you had purchased the drug in bulk to save money and to ensure you don’t run out too soon). To that end, you would want to present evidence that you have a long history of serious drug abuse.
Even a very large amount of drugs does not automatically mean you were dealing. For example, when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, Along Came Polly) overdosed in early February 2014, the police found sixty-five balloons of heroin, as well as a significant amount of cash, in his Manhattan apartment. Yet no one ever accused him of being a heroin dealer. (However, the dealer who allegedly sold him the drugs was charged and prosecuted for his death.)
Challenging the accusation that you knew you were in possession of the drugs can also defeat a criminal charge. For example, if the police found a bag of opiates in your hallway closet, the DA would have to prove it not only belonged to you, but that you actually were aware of its presence, and that you were aware that they were actually illegal drugs. Your attorney, then, might be able to argue that the opiates could just as easily have belonged to any of your three roommates, or perhaps one of their friends who had recently spent the night after a big party.
In instances of official misconduct, your counsel may be able to subpoena the body cam or patrol car dash-cam footage that hopefully supports your defense that the drugs were planted on you or were otherwise moved by the police to implicate you.
See, for example, CA P.C. sections 11350, 11351 11377, 11378, 11378.5, as well as CALCRIM Jury Instructions numbers 2302, 2304.
Sentencing Results from Drug Crimes Convictions
The different sentences that are handed down by LA County superior court judges vary as much as the different types of crimes themselves. Nevertheless, you can expect the following:
Jail time of 2-4 years if you are convicted of felony possession with intent to distribute;
Up to 1 year in jail for misdemeanor possession;
Formal or informal probation, typically for a three-year period (as long as your sentence did not include custody in a state penitentiary), which will include mandatory, random drug testing, counseling, and/or 12-step programs and volunteer work, as well; and
Fines of up to twenty-thousand dollars for felonies or one thousand for misdemeanors.
Any cash or assets that the police believe were the proceeds of illegal activity will also be seized (although in some cases, you can petition the court for their return).
But keep in mind that felony drug convictions often come with heavy sentencing enhancements, if the facts permit, including possible life terms (but with the possibility of parole).
Keep in mind that prosecutors often overcharge drug cases, meaning they will sometimes charge what should be simple misdemeanor cases as felonies in order to pressure you to accept a quick (and unfavorable) plea bargain. For example, as indicated above, you might be charged with intent to sell even if the drugs were for your own personal use.
What We Can Do If You are Prosecuted for a Drug Crime
As long as large quantities of illicit substances are not involved, and you weren’t arrested for large-scale trafficking, and you have a relatively clean record, you may be eligible for drug diversion. This means that instead of going to jail or even prison, you might be able to dispose of your case by going to inpatient or even outpatient counseling with a probationary period at the end of which could result in your plea being withdrawn and your case dismissed outright.
We work closely with a highly skilled placement counselor who specializes in finding the best possible facility or program for many of our clients. Indeed, many of them have been able to turn their lives around after going through one of these programs.
We also present a prospective rehabilitation package to the prosecutor so that he or she can see that our client is serious and sincere about turning his/her life around, as well as taking responsibility for the alleged conduct.
Please note, however, that if you’ve previously gone through a diversion program, you may not be eligible for a second one. Notwithstanding, the courts are growing increasingly sensitive tp the fact that drug addiction is a disease and, therefore, treatment is often the best solution.
When necessary, we also work closely with other highly specialized attorneys to resolve your legal situation. For example, if you are not a legal resident of California, you may face deportation if you plead out to, or are convicted of certain narcotics violations, and so we will often consult or even work with an immigration attorney.
Or, if you have a professional license and face suspension or even permanent loss because of your arrest, we will almost always work with another top lawyer who specializes in licensing cases. By doing so, we have been able to save the careers of many professionals, including lawyers, nurses, real estate agents, certified public accountants, etc.
If diversion (also known as “drug court”) is not an option, we will focus our attention on attacking the manner in which the purported evidence was gathered by law enforcement. For instance, if the search warrant was only authorized for a residence but the drugs were found in a car parked on the street, we would file a motion to suppress the evidence.
In fact, nowhere do Constitutional defenses come into play as much as they do in drug cases because these offenses invite police misconduct more than any other crime. LAPD has been notorious in their history of flagrant civil rights violations, such as the Rampart Division scandal in the ‘90s where multiple officers routinely planted drugs and guns on individuals.
Furthermore, police largely rely on informants to provide the probable cause needed to obtain search warrants or wiretap orders, and therefore you should have a skilled attorney who knows how to attack not only the credibility of the informant, but also how to thoroughly cross-examine and impeach police officers and detectives who relied upon that particular informant in obtaining the search or arrest warrant.
Additionally, we have cross-examined to great effect scores of testifying police officers, investigators, and detectives in drug cases, and therefore are extremely familiar with their tactics, which are often deceptive, misleading, and self-serving. Many law enforcement agents believe that the ends justify the means, and therefore often lie on the witness stand to secure a conviction. The Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm has successfully filed many motions that force the LAPD or LA County Sheriff’s Department to produce a particular officer or deputy’s prior history of misconduct – and most particularly in regard to drug cases. A jury that hears about numerous prior allegations of that official planting drugs on suspects will obviously view his or her testimony in a far different light.
Several Past Drug Cases of the Los Angeles Defense Attorney Law Firm:
Twenty kilos of cocaine seized as part of an alleged international racketeering enterprise
The defendant was arrested by an LAPD Narcotics surveillance team who had been following and listening in to the individual and his alleged co-conspirators for months. At the time of his arrest, he was allegedly found with twenty kilos of uncut cocaine and his Maserati was seized. This was a wide-ranging case involving multiple individuals, an alleged flight from justice to Mexico, and possible life-term consequences.
Successfully defended and represented major marijuana dispensary owners
For more almost two-and-a-half years, Ninaz Saffari represented owners of two of the largest medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles, including in criminal actions resulting from multiple raids by LAPD Narcotics Division – cases that were prosecuted as misdemeanors by the City Attorney’s Office, but which eventually resulted in highly favorable plea agreements. In addition, she also handled multiple civil litigation matters related to the larger of the two businesses, including successfully defeating a commercial unlawful detainer (eviction) action brought against the owners by their landlord for allegedly operating the business without a valid license. She also prosecuted numerous litigation matters against the owners’ former partners, including actions filed in two different courthouses, as well as a mandatory arbitration action. These civil cases enabled the owners to continue operating throughout this entire period virtually without interruption.
Possession of cocaine & DUI refusal, loss of law license – pled to standard DUI, saved license
People v. J.B.: Our client was a local attorney who had been practicing law for years when he got pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence, but refused to allow his blood alcohol content (BAC) to be tested. When the LAPD officers searched him, they found a small amount of cocaine. Our client was now facing a felony, a serious DUI, significant jail time, and the loss of his law license. We were able to knock the DUI with Refusal charge down to a standard DUI, and had the drug-possession charge dismissed after he completed informal diversion and 45 twelve-step meetings. He was able to continue working as an attorney.
Vacationing foreigner, felony possession of cocaine – got DEJ, 21 NA meetings, full dismissal
People v. J.G.: Our client was a foreigner on vacation in the US when he was arrested in LA for possessing cocaine, a felony. He met with many of our competitors before coming to us and, without exception, they told him he would have to extend his vacation by an entire year in order to complete his DEJ (deferred entry of judgment) program, after which his charge would be dismissed. We told him that we are often able to achieve results that our competitors cannot – and his case was a perfect example. We worked out an extremely unusual deal with the Deputy DA and obtained informal diversion with the option of completing thirty NA meetings in twenty-one days. Our client did just that (after paying a five-hundred-dollar fine) and was able to fly home as scheduled with a clean record.
Possession w/ intent to sell – max: five years in prison – got him probation w/ no jail
People v. O.H.: Our client had been arrested in Santa Monica for possessing with intent to sell, as well as transportation of, crystal meth, cocaine, and heroin with a potential five-year prison sentence. His arrest was preceded by a police raid pursuant to a search warrant – he had been the target of an investigation for months. We were able to get him probation with zero jail.
Out-of-stater facing potential federal trafficking charges – pled to simple possession of MJ
People v. N.B.: Our client lived in another state but was arrested here for transporting large amounts of marijuana (felony charge). We met with the prosecutor at the DA’s Office and presented him with compelling proof that our client had been transporting the marijuana to a terminally ill person with cancer who lived in the same state as our client. Both the prosecutor and the LAPD detective who investigated our client agreed to allow him to complete a formal diversion program. Our client was ultimately able to plead out to a lower charge of mere possession. After completing forty-eight NA sessions and one month of community service, our client had his case dismissed only a year-and-a-half after his arrest.
Five separate cases of trafficking – result: diversion & dismissal
People v. C.C.: Our client had been arrested in a handful of separate jurisdictions and charged with just as many separate trafficking cases (five counts of felony possession w/ intent to distribute) and, therefore, was looking at many years in prison if convicted. The first thing we did was consolidate all of the cases into a single one at the DTLA Criminal Courts Building courthouse. We then worked closely with our placement counselor to find an in-patient rehabilitation center which he could immediately enter. We then met with the DA Supervisor and provided compelling evidence that our client had only been dealing to support his own out-of-control drug habit. Thankfully, the Supervisor agreed with our assessment and allowed our client to check himself into the treatment center. After completing the program, our client’s five cases were all dismissed.