Drug trafficking is a category of offenses that include high-level drug dealing. Though California law draws no statutory line between trafficking and dealing, the use of the term “trafficking” to describe an offense typically signals the intention of the criminal justice system (police officers, prosecutors, and judges) to deal with a drug offense as harshly as possible.
Trafficking typically consists of deals much larger than a basic hand-to-hand sale of drugs to an end user. Large quantities of illegal drugs are usually involved. Trafficking is also likely to encompass other associated crimes, including drug smuggling, drug manufacturing, and money laundering.
Drug operations large enough to involve transporting drugs into California (from other states or outside the country) attract coordinated law-enforcement attention in an attempt to seize illegal contraband and make high-profile arrests. The targets are drugs in large quantities and organized networks of smugglers and dealers.
There are four specific counties (Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, and San Bernardino) which have earned extra attention from law enforcement agencies at the local, state, and federal level. Together, these counties comprise the Los Angeles High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA. There is a second HIDTA on the Southwest Border made up of Imperial and San Diego Counties. Authorities in each of these zones concentrate on drugs being manufactured in and transported through the areas in so-called “drug corridors” or “drug pipelines.” The drug gangs responsible for this activity typically rely on individuals called “mules” to move drugs into and through California. Some “mules” perform this work without knowing what they’re doing.
Smuggling And Transportation
Bringing drugs across a state or national border (in California, usually from Mexico) is viewed as a serious crime. Large quantities of drugs amplify the severity of the punishments levied against offenders. When charged in federal court, this sort of drug trafficking can carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years or more. When the quantities involved are large enough, life imprisonment is a possibility.
According to California law, the simple transportation of illegal drugs is a felony in and of itself. Simply moving drugs from one home to another is a crime which can carry a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment. Greater distance imposes greater penalties, and a defendant who carries drugs across more than two different counties can be sent to prison for up to nine years.
High-Volume Drug Sales
The sale of illegal drugs in any quantity will earn California perpetrators significant penalties based on the substances involved. “Softer” drugs like methamphetamine, ketamine, and GBH earn sellers up to four years in prison. Selling “hard” drugs such as heroin, cocaine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone can be punished by sentences of up to five years.
Drug traffickers attempting to sell cocaine – in either powder or base (crack) form – or heroin are subject to much harsher penalties when the quantities involved are high. Sentencing maximums are raised by three years whenever a seller is trying to distribute more than a kilogram of these drugs. The law responsible is California’s Health and Safety Code 11352 HS. This law imposes a sliding scale of increasing penalties for larger quantities. At the top of the scale, drug weights in excess of 80 kilograms earn the addition of up to 25 years to a sentence.
There are similar maximum sentence enhancements for sales of PCP and methamphetamine. The smallest increase is an addition of three years for sales involving more than one kilogram; at the top of the scale, selling more than 20 kilograms earns a sentence enhancement of up to 15 years.
California has criminalized drug conspiracy to cover any agreement to sell, transport, or distribute drugs between two or more people. Such agreement must be coupled to action in order to fall under the state law; federal law requires only proof of the agreement in order to charge a defendant.
The same penalty enhancements that apply to selling drugs can be employed in conspiracy cases. Conspiracy convictions can be achieved with fairly minor involvement, but applying enhanced penalties requires that the conspirator’s “substantial” involvement in planning, directing, executing, or financing the crime be proved.