It should come as no surprise that both federal and state authorities take drug offenses very seriously. Anyone who knows anything about the subject will tell you that being caught with illegal drugs can land you in more trouble than you were bargaining for, and the amount of drugs that you happen to have on you can make things even worse if it appears that is for more than just personal use. If the arresting officers suspect that the drugs that you are caught with are meant to be sold you can end up being charged with possession with intent to distribute and that changes the whole ballpark.

A charge of possession with intent to distribute is really two charges in one: possessing illegal drugs and having the intention of selling them. According to federal law, both crimes must be clearly proven in order for a person to be found guilty and sentenced for possession with intent to distribute; most states have also chosen to treat possession with intent to distribute in the same way. Since being convicted of a charge of possession with intent to distribute can lead to severe consequences such as time behind bars and can negatively impact your entire life, it is absolutely essential to get in touch with a criminal law attorney as soon as possible. Let’s take a closer look at both crimes that make up this charge in order to better understand it.

Possession of a Controlled Substance

You might think that the term “possession” should be perfectly clear and it usually is…when it comes to anything but drugs! They say that possession is nine-tenths of the law and that means that if you have possession of something then it is yours. For example, the money in your pocket is most certainly in your possession and it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for someone to prove that it is not yours. But it’s a bit different when it comes to drugs because the definition of “possession” is a bit broader legally. You might think that the drugs in question absolutely have to be in your hands, your pocket, or on a bag that you are carrying, but that is not the case; they can be found in some remote part of a house that you are in and be linked to you. In fact, the definition of possession is so broad that prosecutors almost never have to go out of their way to prove it, making it extremely difficult for anyone who is charged with possession of a controlled substance to beat the charge and walk away completely unscathed. 

Theoretically, a person who is charged with possession can get off the hook if they can show that they were not aware that the drugs were present, but just saying so will not convince authorities who are bent on conviction nor most juries. What’s more, in order to combat this defense, some states have chosen to pursue the idea that defendants “should have known” that the drugs were present, thus making conviction for possession a virtual certainty.

Intent to Distribute

Watching a crime series on TV might make you think that the police or other law enforcement agencies have to conduct a large scale drug operation in order not just to catch a drug dealer but to learn about his or her entire network of suppliers and clients in order to be able to prosecute the person for distributing narcotics, but that is pure fantasy. Authorities do not have to go to those lengths to prove that a person had the intention of selling an illegal substance that they were caught with. There might have been a time when a person caught with narcotics could just claim that they were for personal use and face penalties only for possession; after all, who’s to say what the intention really was? You can clearly see what a hard time prosecutors had with this if they wanted to pursue distribution charges. 

All that changed when the law began to consider certain amounts as being intended for sale; that is, it is only possession up to a certain amount, after that it becomes possession with intent to distribute. You can well imagine how a lot of people who do get caught with large quantities of a controlled substance have a hard time explaining that it really is just for personal use. Authorities always assume the worst and prosecutors seem more interested in getting convictions than the truth so a lot of people in such a predicament end up being unjustly convicted for more than just possession.

Intent Alone

Although a person can be charged with possession of a controlled substance alone, a person will not be charged with intent to distribute if there is no possession, to begin with. It would be very hard for authorities to charge, prosecute, and convict a person just because he or she had an intention to sell narcotics if this person had not yet even gotten those narcotics. There might be a possible conspiracy charge here but certainly not possession.

Penalties for Possession With Intent to Distribute

A person who is convicted of possession of a controlled substance will not necessarily go to jail, especially if it is his or her first conviction. But possession with intent to distribute is considered to be a felony charge with minimum mandatory prison sentences in many states. For example, in the state of California, a person who is found guilty of possession with intent to distribute for the first time faces a prison sentence of 2 to 4 years and a fine of up to $20,000; if there are previous similar convictions, 3 additional years in prison can be added to the sentence for every single previous conviction. Such a charge can even be sentenced with up to 25 years in prison if the narcotics in question were heroin, cocaine, or cocaine base and the amount was extraordinary.

The Importance of a Solid Defense

Considering the penalties that a charge of possession with intent to distribute carries, you have to do everything in your power to put up a solid defense and that means getting an experienced criminal defense lawyer to represent you. There are various defenses that a good criminal law attorney can pursue in order to get the charges either dropped completely or at the very least downgraded so that the penalties are not as severe. For example, did law enforcement officers even have probable cause to make contact with the defendant or even make an arrest? Was the search legal or where constitutional rights violated? These and other defense tactics are often successful at getting a judge to dismiss the charges or the prosecutor’s office to offer a favorable deal.