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When Do Drug Charges Become Federal in Pennsylvania?

The rampant distribution and use of drugs and other controlled substances is a hot-button issue in the United States. One only needs to look through a news feed to see a story about fentanyl or another hard drug du jour involved in some way. Crimes involving drugs are serious at both the state and Federal levels. However, some people may be confused as to when a drug crime is charged as a state crime and when it is charged at the federal level.

In Pennsylvania, drug charges become federal when you cross state lines and in complicated drug operations. However, you can also be charged at both the state and federal levels at the same time since a state offense and a federal offense are different crimes.

For a free, totally confidential analysis of your case, call The Law Offices of Lloyd Long at (215) 302-0171 and speak to our Philadelphia drug defense lawyers.

When Do State Drug Laws Apply, and When Do Federal Drug Laws Apply in Pennsylvania?

Most land in Pennsylvania is the jurisdiction of the state, so crimes done there will be pursued at the state level. However, drug crimes committed in a national park, a federal courthouse, or other federal land would be dealt with at the federal level.

Another way that drug charges can be brought at the federal level is if the crime involves crossing state lines. So, if someone is trafficking heroin between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, they will very likely face charges at the federal level.

Circumstances that Can Lead to Federal Drug Charges in Pennsylvania

Certain circumstances will lead to federal drug charges in Pennsylvania. It is important for our Pennsylvania drug defense lawyers to know the circumstances surrounding the charges against you because it lets us know how to best proceed with your case.

Arrest by a Federal Officer

If you are arrested for a drug crime by a federal officer, it is very likely that you are going to be charged at the federal level. This can happen through a “sting” operation or through a normal investigation conducted by a federal entity like the DEA, where a federal agent acts as if they are someone offering illegal substances.

Federal and State Agent Cooperation

State and federal law enforcement frequently cooperate and work together for drug-related crimes. This is especially true if there is a belief that the perpetrator may be armed or dangerous, as state-level police may not have the equipment, training, and experience to deal with such a situation. The trick is that it has to be a federal case to be a federal drug charge. So, if federal agents are helping local police with a case, the defendant will be charged at the state level, but if local law enforcement is assisting with federal matters, the case will be charged at the federal level.

Serious or Complex Offenses

More serious drug crimes are more likely to be pursued at the federal level. For example, someone storing cocaine in their drawer would probably be dealt with at the state level. However, someone who is distributing cocaine throughout Pennsylvania would likely attract the attention of federal agents and thus would be charged at the federal level. Interstate drug traffic operations that go through Pennsylvania would also fall under this category and would be charged at the federal level.

Are Federal Drug Changes More Serious than State Charges in Pennsylvania?

Generally, drug crime charges at the federal level are more serious than crimes at the state level for a few reasons.

First offenders with state-level drug charges are likely to be seen as the least serious defendants. Local law enforcement is usually tasked with dealing with smaller, local cases, whereas federal investigators pick the most complicated and dangerous cases from across the United States. They may be offered deals by the prosecution that are beneficial to both sides by saving time and energy for the court and saving the defendant from lengthy prison sentences. Federal charges, on the other hand, often have mandatory sentences and strict guidelines. Prosecutors may have less freedom to work with you at the federal level than at the state level. That being said generalizations are no guarantee. You could be up against a zealous state prosecutor or a pragmatic federal prosecutor who can be worked with.

Additionally, plea deals exist at both the state and federal level, but there is no parole board for federal drug crimes – that option is only available at the state level. The practical effect of this is that federal prosecutors are much more likely to be going after people who should reasonably be in prison, while state prosecutors can go after defendants who may not need to be in prison for a long time.

Can I be Charged for the Same Crime at the State and Federal Levels in Pennsylvania?

Many people will be familiar with the concept of “double jeopardy” in law. Essentially, it means that you cannot be charged with the same crime twice. However, you can be charged with the same crime at both the state and federal level in Pennsylvania. This is because the state government and the federal government are two different entities. This is part of a concept known as “dual sovereignty.” Because you are being charged by two different governments, there is no double jeopardy issue like if the same government were charging you with the same crime twice.

Sometimes, the specified conduct in the statute does not overlap anyway. For example, you could face state charges for possession on one side of the state line, but if you cross state lines, the federal government could charge you with a crime that involves crossing state lines as an element. Since this has at least one element that the other state charge does not have, it would not be considered a double jeopardy issue even if the charges were coming from the same government.

Talk to Our Pennsylvania Drug Defense Attorneys

The Law Offices of Lloyd Long has Pennsylvania drug defense attorneys ready to take your calls and discuss your situation at (215) 302-0171.