When you think about the illegal distribution of drugs, a drug ring or cartel may come to mind – or a dark underworld that you know nothing about. While these are the sources of many serious drug charges, there is a lot more to it than that. In fact, a 2021 case in Texas highlights the fact that the medical professionals we rely upon to restore our health and to do no harm can also be involved in the illegal distribution of drugs, and such actions can lead to federal conspiracy charges. If you are facing a drug charge of any kind, you need an experienced Killeen criminal defense lawyer in your corner.
The Recent Case
According to a Texas CBS channel, an Arlington doctor and his nurse practitioner were indicted by a federal grand jury in June on a charge of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. Additionally, the doctor and his medical assistant were indicted on a charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. The indictments contend that the doctor and his conspirators engaged in a variety of illegal drug-related activities.
The doctor is alleged to have regularly prescribed controlled substances without thoroughly conducting the necessary medical exams. The drugs involved included (to name a few):
The doctor is alleged to have written the prescriptions with full knowledge that they were likely to be used for illegal distribution. In certain instances, the doctor is alleged to have written prescriptions without conducting a medical examination of any kind. In fact, at times, he went so far as telling his office staff to simply issue whatever prescriptions patients requested.
In return for his part in the alleged conspiracy, the doctor was remunerated in a variety of ways – one of which was an exchange for illicit drugs.
Allegedly, the doctor allowed his nurse practitioner to use his own medical credentials and DEA registration number to prescribe medications – in spite of the fact that she was not legally authorized to prescribe the medications in question. Additionally, the two are alleged to have, together, submitted falsified medical claims to health insurance companies, including Texas Workers’ Compensation. They are also accused of engaging in up-coding, which refers to billing for medical services that are provided at a higher reimbursement level.
If convicted, the doctor faces a sentence of up to 15 years in federal prison. His nurse practitioner, on the other hand, faces a sentence of up to 10 years in federal prison, and his medical assistant faces a sentence of 5 years.
What Is a Federal Conspiracy?
The basic definition of a federal conspiracy, according to the Legal Information Institute (LII) at Cornell Law, is when two or more individuals conspire to either commit an offense against the United States or to defraud the United States (or any agency of the United States) in any way or for any reason.
The Charge of Federal Conspiracy
When someone is charged with a federal conspiracy, it means that the federal government is accusing him or her of entering into an agreement with at least one other person to commit a federal crime. The charge of conspiracy is unique in the sense that the government is not required to prove that the offense in question ever occurred. Instead, the government is tasked only with showing that the involved people agreed to instigate the federal offense (and in most cases, at least one of them must have taken a substantial step toward committing the offense). The legal penalties for conspiracy tend to reflect the underlying crimes involved.
Federal Drug Conspiracy Charges
Federal drug conspiracy charges stem from alleged crimes in which two or more people conspire to commit a federal drug crime. In order to prove a federal drug conspiracy, the government must have sufficient evidence regarding both the following:
At least two people entered into an agreement to violate a federal drug law.
Each conspirator understood the unlawful nature of the agreement that he or she joined into.
Categories of Federal Drug Conspiracy Charges
There are four basic categories of federal drug conspiracy charges.
Manufacturing a Controlled Substance
The manufacturing of a controlled substance can include any of the actions that go into the preparation, processing, production, or extraction of a controlled substance. Examples include anything from pressing pills to growing marijuana plants.
Importing a Controlled Substance
Importing a controlled substance involves importing an illegal drug into the country, and this is typically managed via deception of either Border Control or U.S. Customs.
Distributing a Controlled Substance
Even if there is no money involved in the interaction, delivering a drug illegally to someone else is a federal crime. Often distribution takes place on a broad scale, but this is not a requirement of the charge. The distribution of a controlled substance is the charge that the doctor and his nurse practitioner (in the case outlined above) face.
Possession of a Controlled Substance with the Intent to Distribute
While possession of an illegal drug is a separate charge that is generally less serious than a charge of distribution or manufacturing, the government may attempt to prove that the person in possession of the drugs (especially if there is a large quantity) intended to distribute them. If the government can prove intent to distribute, the charge is just as serious as it would be for actually distributing them. When it comes down to proving intent to distribute, all the following can be deemed evidentiary:
A prior conviction of drug sales
Possession of the equipment used to distribute drugs, such as scales and baggies
The amount of the drug in the individual’s possession
Drug Conspiracy Charges and Attendant Penalties
The penalties that accompany drug conspiracy charges depend on both the kind of drug involved and the amount of the drug involved.
While recreational marijuana is legal in several states across the country, it is illegal at both the federal level and in the State of Texas. Federal conspiracy charges involving marijuana break down into the following (based on the amount in question):
If there is no specific amount alleged, there is no mandatory minimum sentence, but there is a maximum sentence of 40 years in federal prison.
If 100kg or more is involved, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in federal prison and a maximum sentence of 40 years.
If 1,000kg or more is involved, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison and a maximum sentence of 40 years.
The amount of heroin involved guides the penalties faced, including:
If there is 100g or more of heroin involved, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in federal prison and a maximum sentence of 40 years.
If there is 1kg or more of heroin involved, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison and a maximum sentence of 40 years.
When cocaine or crack cocaine is the drug in question, the following sentencing requirements apply:
If there is 500g or more of cocaine – or 28g or more of crack cocaine – involved, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in federal prison and a maximum sentence of 40 years.
If there is 5kg or more of cocaine – or 280g or more of crack cocaine – involved, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison and a maximum sentence of life.
The penalties for a conspiracy involving methamphetamine include:
If there is less than 5g of methamphetamine involved, there is no mandatory minimum sentence, but there is a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
If there is 5g or more of methamphetamine involved, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in federal prison and a maximum sentence of 40 years.
If there is 50g or more of methamphetamine involved, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison and a maximum sentence of life.
Opioids and GHB
The national health crisis involving opioids has led the federal government to increase the enforcement of drugs involving them, and this includes drugs like fentanyl, GHB (or the date rape drug), and ketamine. While there is no mandatory minimum sentence for conspiracy charges involving opioids, there is a maximum federal prison sentence of 20 years.
Enhancements, however, can apply.
There are significant charge enhancements that can apply in the following situations:
If the drug in question leads to someone else’s death or serious injury
If the defendant has a prior drug-related felony conviction
Charges for Providing Opioids that Lead to Fatal Overdoses
The Department of Justice released a notice in May of 2021 announcing that the DEA’s Overdose Justice Task Force had brought 11 criminal cases against alleged drug dealers who sold or otherwise provided narcotics to users who suffered fatal overdoses from the opioids, such as fentanyl or fentanyl analogs. Each of the 12 defendants involved was charged with distribution of narcotics resulting in death, and if convicted, each faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in federal prison and the potential maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Acting United States Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison shares that these charges are the first steps in bringing justice to the families of victims who often died without knowing they were ingesting some of the world’s most powerful opioids. The criminal cases in question highlight the serious threat that fentanyl, which tends to hide in a wide range of illicit narcotics, represents.
Legal Defenses for Conspiracy Charges
When the government goes after defendants for drug-related conspiracy charges, it tends to stack the deck against them. This is why building and bringing your strongest defense is paramount. Although your case will be utterly unique to the circumstances involved – and your defense will be similarly unique and nuanced – there are several basic defense strategies that commonly apply.
Evidence that Was Obtained Illegally
The federal government is required by law to follow specific rules and regulations in the collection of evidence, and when it fails to do so, the judge involved can deem the evidence inadmissible in court. Further, if the federal government stoops to illegal search and seizure practices or to outright entrapment, it can lead to case dismissals.
Lack of Intent to Commit Conspiracy
In order to convict you of a conspiracy charge, the prosecution must demonstrate that you knowingly entered the drug conspiracy agreement (with the understanding that the activity involved was illegal). If you can prove that you had no knowledge of the conspiracy involved or that you did not agree to participate in the drug conspiracy in question, it can prove to be an effective defense strategy.
Withdrawal from the Conspiracy
If you can prove that you invested considerable effort in extricating yourself from the conspiracy after you became involved, it can go a long way toward helping to build a strong defense.
Your Criminal Defense Attorney
One of the most important components of crafting your most effective defense strategy involves working closely with your dedicated criminal defense attorney. The specifics of your case will determine your best steps forward, and sometimes, making a plea deal in which you plead guilty to a lesser charge – or plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence – is the best approach. Making the right decisions for you – with the professional legal counsel of your criminal defense attorney guiding you – is the best way to help ensure your case’s most advantageous outcome.
It Is Time to Consult with an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you are facing a drug conspiracy charge – or any kind of criminal charge – Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is an accomplished criminal defense lawyer who has the keen legal insight, impressive experience, and drive you are looking for. Your case is important, so please do not hesitate to contact us online or call us at 254-501-4040 for more information today.