Misdemeanor versus Felony Drug Crimes

If you’ve been arrested for a drug crime, you also have to worry if it will be a misdemeanor or felony charge. The prosecutor’s decision will determine if you get a relative slap on the wrist or years of incarceration. With a good drug crimes lawyer representing you, the outcome will be more favorable.

Generally, possession of any controlled substance is illegal. Many states have legalized the use of marijuana or decriminalized the use of small quantities of other controlled substances. But at the federal level, drug crimes – even possessing marijuana for personal use – is illegal.

Misdemeanor versus Felony

A misdemeanor is a criminal offense that is punishable by up to one year in local or county jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000. A felony is a more serious offense. It is punishable by at least one year in a state or federal prison and a fine of up to $100,000 or more.

Although the vast majority of drug crimes are for drug possession, you can also be arrested for drug dealing, drug smuggling, drug trafficking and drug manufacturing. These crimes can be misdemeanors, or felonies depending on the type of drug, the quantity of drug and other factors.

Other considerations are whether you will be charged with drug crimes at the state or federal level. State laws for drug crimes vary. For example, one-eighth of an ounce of an illegal drug could be a violation or infraction in one state, a misdemeanor in another state, or a felony in a third state.

In New York, being caught with a small amount of marijuana won’t get you arrested because the drug is legal in this state. However, if you are found with a small amount of cocaine or heroin for personal use, it will often be a misdemeanor possession charge. If you are found with one pound of meth, you will be arrested on felony charges of possession with intent to sell.

Federal drug laws also differ from state laws. At the federal level, the possession and sale of all controlled substances are illegal. This makes things far more complicated if you are arrested in a state that has legalized or decriminalized illicit drugs.  And if you’re charged for drug crimes at the federal level, you face much harsher penalties than if you were charged at the state level. The most serious and large scaled drug crimes are usually handled by the federal government.

What Makes a Drug Crime a Misdemeanor or a Felony?

Law enforcement uses three criteria to decide if a drug crime is a misdemeanor or a felony: 1. type of drug; 2. quantity of drug; and 3. enhancements.

  1. Type of Drug

The type of controlled substance you’re found with is important when determining if the charge is a misdemeanor or felony. Controlled substances include not only illegal drugs, but also prescription drugs obtained illegally.

The federal government helps with this determination by classifying drugs into five categories or schedules based on how dangerous the drugs are.  Schedule 1 drugs are the most addictive.

  • Schedule 1 – ecstasy, heroin, LSD, marijuana,
  • Schedule 2 – cocaine, methamphetamine, morphine, Oxycodone
  • Schedule 3 – anabolic steroids, ketamine, testosterone
  • Schedule 4 – Ambien, Valium, Xanax
  • Schedule 5 – Lyrica, Motofen, Parepectolin
  1. Quantity of Drug

The quantity of drugs found is also important. Tiny amounts for recreational use are often misdemeanors, but larger amounts usually indicate you are also selling illegal substances, so this crime is usually a felony charge. If substantial quantities of unlawful drugs or chemicals used to manufacture drugs are found in your possession that indicates a drug trafficking network. The federal government often takes over such cases, especially if you are transporting drugs across state lines.

With minimal sentencing guidelines, you could face 10 years to life in federal prison for the following amounts:

  • 1 kilogram of heroin
  • 5 kilograms of cocaine
  • 1000 kilograms of marijuana
  1. Enhancements

Enhancements are certain factors that may increase the seriousness of drug crimes.  If there are enhancements to your arrest, this leads to longer prison sentences and higher fines.

Below are common enhancements:

  • Previous criminal history
  • Defendant is the perceived leader of drug selling, drug manufacturing or drug trafficking operation
  • Selling drugs to children or pregnant women
  • Selling, possessing, or manufacturing illegal drugs within a school zone, day care center r playground
  • Possession of a firearm at time of arrest
  • Death or serious harm as the result of drug crime

Penalties for Drug Crimes

There are a variety of penalties you can face if you’re arrested for drug crimes whether you are charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. These penalties include community service, drug rehabilitation programs and probation for those found in possession of illegal drugs for personal use or other minor drug charges. There are drug courts that deal exclusively with drug-related crimes in an attempt to help people get clean and sober instead of sending them to jail. For more serious drug crimes like trafficking or manufacturing, there is often a jail or prison sentence, fines and probation.   

The Classifications of Misdemeanor Charges

All states use a classification system to define the severity of a misdemeanor. The classifications are usually Class A or Class 1 to Class D or Class 4. Class A or 1 is the most serious misdemeanor crimes. Every class has its own set of guidelines regarding penalties.

In New York, there are only three misdemeanor classifications: Class A, Class B and unclassified misdemeanors. These are crimes in which sentences and fines are determined on an individual basis.

  • Class A – up to one year in jail and up to $1,000 in fines
  • Class B – up to three months in jail and up to $500 in fines.

The Classifications of Felony Charges

Most states categorize felonies into five classes or levels: Class A or Class 1 to Class E or Class 5. Some states don’t have subcategories and just have misdemeanor or felonies. In New York, there are six classes of felonies: Class A-I, Class A-ll, Class B, Class C, Class D and Class E.

The crime laws in New York are further complicated with two types of sentences – indeterminate and determinate. An indeterminate sentence is often for non-violent offenses and has a minimum and maximum number of years in prison. (For Class A felony convictions, there are only indeterminate sentences.) A determinate sentence is for violent crimes and drug-related crimes and imposes a set number of years in prison.

Below are the indeterminate sentences for felonies in New York.

  • Class A-I – 15 to 40 years in prison, or up to life in prison
  • Class A-II – 3 to 8 years in prison, or up to life in prison
  • Class B – 1 year to one-third of maximum sentence which is up to 25 years
  • Class C – 1 to 15 years in prison
  • Class D – 1 to 7 years in prison
  • Class E – 1 to 4 years in prison

Defenses for Misdemeanors and Felonies

There are many defenses to a drug crime charge. A knowledgeable criminal defense attorney will examine your particular situation and come up with the best defense strategies. For simple drug possession, you can assert that the drugs didn’t belong to you. For defendants found with a large amount of drugs, a common defense is that the person had no intention of selling or distributing the drugs. Other defenses are an illegal search and seizure by the police, entrapment, mental disease or defect or the defendant is under the age of16.

Misdemeanor and felony drug crimes are serious offenses even if the penalty is only a fine. Any criminal record can cause problems in your life such as finding a job or a place to live. If you have been arrested for a drug offense, you need to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands the laws in your state. Schedule a consultation with a drug crimes lawyer in your area today.