Law enforcement officials in Texas have used a variety of tools to help them investigate suspected drug-related offenses. Some of these tools have resulted in profound injustice in the form of wrongful convictions. A kit used by many officers around the state to test substances they believe are an illegal drug has returned “positive” results for substances later revealed to be innocuous. By the time more accurate test results were available in many of these cases, defendants had already pleaded guilty rather than risk going to trial against what police had represented as incontrovertible evidence of guilt. Now, the Houston Police Department has announced that it will no longer use these field kits, but not because of concerns about justice. Instead, the department cited risks posed to officers from opiate exposure during testing. Still, this is welcome news for Texas criminal defense advocates.

In any criminal prosecution, the state has the burden of proving every element of the charged offense, as it is defined by statute, beyond a reasonable doubt. Field-testing kits are often used by police to test substances believed to be cocaine. The relevant criminal charge would likely be possession of a controlled substance in Penalty Group 1. This would require proof beyond a reasonable doubt of four elements:  that a defendant (1) possessed a controlled substance (2) that is included in Penalty Group 1, (3) that the defendant did so “knowingly or intentionally,” and (4) that the defendant did not have a valid prescription for the substance from a medical doctor. Tex. Health & Safety Code §§ 481.102(3)(D), 481.115(a).

In a cocaine possession case, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the substance is, in fact, cocaine. The requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt means that the “finder of fact” concludes that no reasonable doubt exists as to whether the substance is cocaine. The “finder of fact” is either the judge presiding over the case or a jury of the defendant’s peers. Results from a drug-testing kit routinely used by police can appear very convincing, unless the defendant is able to challenge the accuracy or validity of those test results. An innocent defendant without the resources to challenge the test results might choose to plead guilty rather than risk turning the decision over to a jury.

Most states in the U.S. now allow, to some extent, the sale, possession, and use of marijuana for various purposes. Several states, beginning with Colorado, have effectively legalized recreational use of marijuana in small amounts. Many of these states, however, only allow the use of specific marijuana-derived products for specific medical uses, under a doctor’s supervision. Texas is among the states that have only slightly eased restrictions on marijuana. Even the minor recent changes to state law, however, have resulted in significantly different priorities between the federal and Texas criminal justice systems. Marijuana remains a highly controlled substance under federal law, but since 2014, Congress has barred federal law enforcement from interfering with state medical marijuana programs. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has recently lobbied Congress to repeal this provision, but a Senate committee approved renewing it this summer. Shortly afterwards, Texas issued the first license under this state’s medical marijuana law.

Marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law, meaning that Congress has deemed it to have “no currently accepted medical use.” 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(b)(1)(B), (c)(I)(c)(10). Texas also continues to treat marijuana as a strictly controlled substance in most circumstances, but in 2015, the Texas Legislature enacted the Texas Compassionate-Use Act (TCUA). This law allows the use of “low-THC cannabis” for the treatment of intractable epilepsy, defined as a “seizure disorder” that has persisted after the patient has tried “two or more appropriately chosen and maximally titrated antiepileptic drugs.” Tex. Occ. Code §§ 169.001(2), (3). The TCUA establishes standards for the licensing of “dispensing organizations” and registration of individuals involved in producing, distributing, prescribing, and using low-THC cannabis. See Tex. Health & Safety Code § 487.001 et seq.

Despite the many layers of administrative procedures put in place by the TCUA, it still violates federal law, at least in a technical sense. Federal law enforcement officials, from the President and the Attorney General (AG) down to individual DEA agents, have taken a wide range of views on whether federal law should supersede state medical marijuana programs. The view of the current AG appears to be that federal drug enforcement efforts take precedence, but Congress has generally disagreed.

The federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) defines five schedules of controlled substances and prescribes penalties for their production, distribution, and possession. Texas drug crime laws contain similar schedules. The CSA includes a list of substances in each schedule, but it also gives some authority to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to modify or adjust the schedules. The DOJ has delegated this authority to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). One factor considered in the scheduling of controlled substances involves the potential for medical use. A different federal agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), deals with drugs used for medical purposes. Recently, the FDA announced that it will allow further research into the medical potential of a Schedule I controlled substance known as MDMA. While this research could lead to FDA approval of MDMA for medical purposes, the DEA or Congress would still have to remove it from Schedule I.

The CSA places the most highly restricted controlled substances in Schedule I. MDMA, scientifically known as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine and colloquially known as ecstasy, among other names, was not among the drugs originally added to Schedule I by Congress. The DEA designated MDMA as a Schedule I “hallucinogenic substance” in the 1980s. 21 C.F.R. § 1308.11(d)(11). Texas places MDMA in Penalty Group 2. Tex. Health & Safety Code § 481.103(a)(1).

The CSA’s criteria for inclusion in Schedule I are “high potential for abuse,” a lack of “currently accepted medical use,” and “a lack of accepted safety for use…under medical supervision.” 8 U.S.C. § 812(b)(1). Other well-known Schedule I controlled substances include heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and marijuana. Id. at §§ 812(c)(I)(b)(10), (c)(9), (c)(10). Many controlled substances commonly associated with the illegal drug trade are actually listed in Schedule II, including cocaine and methamphetamine. Id. at § 812(c)(II)(a)(4), 21 C.F.R. § 1308.12(d)(2).

The legal status of marijuana at the state level is changing across the country, with more than half of all U.S. states now allowing the possession and use of marijuana to some extent. Federal law, however, still considers marijuana to have no medical use and therefore no acceptable reason for possession, cultivation, or sale. The disparity between federal law and many state laws has produced numerous unusual and unfortunate results. A ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals from last year, while not binding on Texas, ought to be concerning to many Texas drug crime defendants, since the court held that federal law may bar lawful medical marijuana users from purchasing firearms. Wilson v. Lynch, 835 F. 3d 1083 (9th Cir. 2016).

Marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. 21 U.S.C. § 812(c)(I)(c)(10). Texas enacted a medical marijuana law in 2015 that allows the use of “low-THC cannabis,” with a prescription, to treat “intractable epilepsy.” See Tex. Occ. Code § 169.001 et seq., Tex. Health & Safety Code § 487.001 et seq. This is one of the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the country, but it is still far less restrictive than federal law. The Wilson case involves Nevada law, which exempts individuals from prosecution for marijuana possession if they have a valid state registration card. See Nev. Rev. Stat. § 453A.010 et seq.

Federal law makes it a crime for certain individuals to possess firearms in a manner that affects interstate commerce, which has often been interpreted as prohibiting the sale of a firearm to someone covered by the statute. This includes “unlawful user[s] of…any controlled substance.” 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(3), 21 U.S.C. § 802(6). The law further states that it is a crime for someone to sell a firearm to someone they know or have “reasonable cause to believe” meets this criterion. 18 U.S.C. § 922(d)(3).

Courts have identified numerous exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s search warrant requirement, meaning that law enforcement may conduct a search without first obtaining a warrant if they can demonstrate that the situation falls under a recognized exception. They must still demonstrate probable cause to believe that the search would yield contraband or evidence of criminal activity. The “border search exception,” however, goes further than most exceptions. It states that law enforcement, specifically the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), can conduct searches of people and property entering the U.S. without a warrant, and without probable cause under some circumstances. Two Texas drug crime-related searches and seizures at a border crossing in early 2017, using high-tech imaging equipment, demonstrate how searches at or near the border can be different from searches elsewhere.

The border search exception is based in part on the sovereign right to control entry to the country. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that customs officials may search mail and other items arriving at the border without a warrant. United States v. Ramsey, 431 U.S. 606 (1977). With regard to searches of people and their property, the court has held that people have a lessened expectation of privacy at border crossings. Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 515 (1983). Law enforcement can stop vehicles at fixed checkpoints for the purpose of immigration enforcement, even without any specific suspicion about individual vehicles, and they can refer some vehicles to a “secondary inspection area.” United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543, 563 (1976).

Congress has given immigration officials the authority to perform these types of immigration enforcement functions up to 100 miles from international borders within the U.S. 8 U.S.C. § 1357(a)(3). When law enforcement officials are not operating out of a fixed checkpoint, such as by pulling over individual vehicles on public roads, the Supreme Court has held that they must be able to demonstrate probable cause. Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, 413 U.S. 266 (1973). Fixed checkpoints therefore provide law enforcement with their greatest amount of power to conduct warrantless searches.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech. Generally speaking, the government cannot restrain people’s speech through criminal penalties. Certain forms of speech, however, are not protected. The government may enact restrictions on speech when the restriction is closely related to a legitimate government function or public interest, and it is narrow enough to serve that purpose without burdening other rights. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on a challenge to a state law that made it a felony for individuals with certain criminal convictions to use social media networks. No comparable restriction exists in Texas criminal statutes, but the ruling could still have an impact here. The court found that the statute violated the First Amendment, since the state could achieve its purpose in other, less restrictive ways. Packingham v. North Carolina, 582 U.S. ___ (2017).

The law at issue in Packingham deals with registered sex offenders. The precise definition of a registered sex offender varies from one state to the next, and it is frequently subject to amendment by lawmakers. Politicians often couple the term with an express or implied statement about danger to children. Protecting children from harm is a legitimate public interest, but the extent to which lawmakers may go in furtherance of this interest is a matter of ongoing debate.

Under § 14-202.5 of the North Carolina General Statutes, a registered sex offender commits a felony if they access a “commercial social networking Web site” of which they know minors can become members. The statute defines “commercial social networking Web site” very broadly based on four criteria:  the site (1) obtains revenue from membership fees or advertising; (2) “facilitates social introduction” between people; (3) allows the creation of individual pages that could contain personal information; and (4) enables users to communicate with one another.

The policies of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) regarding federal drug sentencing have gone through several major changes recently. Former Attorney General (AG) Eric Holder undertook a major overhaul several years ago, seeking to focus attention away from low-level drug offenses and onto major ones. In May 2017, however, AG Jeff Sessions rescinded Holder’s policy and issued a new memorandum directing federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.” The memorandum does not specifically mention drugs and drug-related offenses, but that is where it is likely to have the most far-reaching effects.

Federal sentencing guidelines derive, in part, from a list of factors established by Congress in 1984 that courts must consider when imposing a sentence. These include “the nature…of the offense and the…characteristics of the defendant,” the effect of the sentence on society at large, the need to maintain consistent sentencing practices for similar offenses, and “the need to provide restitution to any victims of the offense.” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

A “mandatory minimum” sentence gives courts no discretion to adjust the sentence downward. Such sentences became particularly widespread with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Pub. L. 99-570 (Oct. 27, 1986). That law established lengthy minimum sentences for various drug offenses, such as 10 years for manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute one kilogram of heroin or five kilograms of cocaine. 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A)(i), (ii). According to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), 47.9 percent of all federal drug convictions in fiscal year 2015 involved an offense with a mandatory minimum penalty.

Continue reading

More than half of the states in the U.S. now allow the use of medical marijuana to some extent. At the same time, federal law still treats marijuana as having “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(b)(1)(B), (c)(I)(c)(10). This has, obviously, created conflicts between federal and state law enforcement. Congress relieved this tension somewhat in 2014, when it passed legislation known as the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment as part of a spending bill. This amendment prohibits the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) from spending funds on law enforcement activities that interfere with lawful state medical marijuana systems, which range from the extensive in California to the restrictive in Texas. Texas marijuana lawyers are aware, however, that officials in the new White House administration have sought to use federal resources against state medical marijuana. So far, the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment remains in force.

California was the first state to allow the use of medical marijuana with a doctor’s prescription. Voters approved Proposition 215 in November 1996, also known as the “Compassionate Use Act.” Cal. Health and Safety Code § 11362.5. Twenty years later, in November 2016, voters in that state approved Proposition 64, which authorized the sale, purchase, and possession of limited amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Id. at § 11362.1. Most states have not gone this far, but states that allow medical marijuana in some form outnumber those that do not. Texas is among the states that allow medical marijuana use, although it is strictly limited to “low-THC cannabis” to treat “intractable epilepsy.” Tex. Health & Safety Code Ch. 487, Tex. Occ. Code Ch. 169.

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected at least two challenges to the applicability of federal marijuana laws over state medical marijuana laws. The court rejected a common-law medical necessity defense in U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, 532 U.S. 483 (2001). Justice Thomas, writing for the court, noted that federal criminal law generally does not recognize common-law defenses unless Congress specifically includes them in a statute. He concluded that “a medical necessity exception for marijuana is at odds with the terms of the Controlled Substances Act.” Id. at 491. The court held that the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution allows a federal prohibition of marijuana production, distribution, and possession, regardless of state medical marijuana laws, in Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005).

Prosecutors are obligated to turn over evidence that could potentially exonerate a defendant in a criminal case. This is known as the Brady rule, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). A federal appellate court recently ruled on a defendant’s claim that the prosecution violated his rights by failing to disclose information about criminal charges against two federal agents for conduct during the investigation of the defendant. The court was harshly critical of the two agents, who each received lengthy prison sentences, but it held that their criminal activity did not affect the reliability of the government’s case against the defendant. United States v. Ulbricht, No. 15-1815, slip op. (2d Cir., May 31, 2017).

The Brady rule arose from a murder prosecution against two defendants. The named defendant, Brady, maintained that the other defendant committed the murder. The prosecution withheld a statement by the other defendant confessing to committing the murder alone. Without that evidence, Brady was convicted. The Supreme Court held that the prosecutors had violated Brady’s rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It is now common for defendants to request all “Brady evidence” from prosecutors during criminal cases.

The defendant in Ulbricht was convicted of multiple counts in connection with his operation of an online marketplace known as “Silk Road,” where people could anonymously exchange contraband, such as drugs and false identification documents, using the virtual currency known as Bitcoin. As part of the investigation into Silk Road, law enforcement agents would obtain the cooperation of low-level administrators and then pose as them using their online Silk Road accounts. A Secret Service agent and a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent were eventually charged with using this access to the Silk Road system to steal millions of dollars worth of Bitcoins.

Continue reading

The criminal justice system must constantly adapt to changes brought by the increased use of the internet. Legal doctrines that once only applied to physical searches of people’s homes must now regulate “virtual” searches. Several years ago, federal prosecutors charged an individual with multiple offenses arising from his alleged administration of an online marketplace for illegal drugs and other contraband. It was reportedly the first prosecution involving the drug trade on the so-called “dark net.” A jury convicted the defendant on all seven counts in the government’s indictment, which included drug-related offenses, racketeering, and computer fraud. A judge sentenced him to life imprisonment. In May 2017, a federal appellate court denied his appeal, in which he argued in part that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. United States v. Ulbricht, No. 15-1815, slip op. (2d Cir., May 31, 2017).

Federal law allows law enforcement to monitor electronic communications under strict limitations. Two types of surveillance allowed by federal law are known as “pen registers” and “trap and trace devices.” A pen register “records or decodes dialing, routing, addressing, or signaling information transmitted by” a telephone or other device. 18 U.S.C. § 3127(3). A trap and trace device “captures the incoming electronic or other impulses,” allowing law enforcement “to identify the source of a wire or electronic communication.” Id. at § 3127(4). Neither device may capture or record “the contents of any communication.” Id. They provide law enforcement with a record that shows the source, destination, and duration of phone calls and other communications.

Continue reading