Below, a DC federal drug attorney discusses how he develops a defense strategy in federal drug trafficking and conspiracy cases.
It is important to understand what kind of investigation is involved in the case, because the methods and manners that law enforcement authorities use to go about investigating their cases differ depending on the type of case. Once you know what kind of case it is, you can look at the investigation and evaluate it for any strengths and weaknesses.
The first thing I want to do is identify the type of case. What I mean by that is whether this is a possession with intent to distribute case, and if it is, was a search warrant executed? Or is this a larger trafficking/drug enterprise case in which there are a lot of wiretaps and the use of informants, snitches, and things of that nature?
If it is a search warrant case, then of course we want to carefully look at the affidavit that was presented to the judge in order for the police to get permission to search the premises. We would want to know whether there are any false statements contained within that affidavit.
We want to know whether the officer who swore out that affidavit has any prior veracity issues which were not disclosed to the judge in signing the affidavit. We’d also like to know whether there was an informant or a snitch used. Sometimes law enforcement officers will make a buy from a location using snitches or informants, and they’ll make multiple buys, and use that to establish probable cause to get a warrant to search the premises.
One of the things attorneys want to know, which could possibly lead to what’s called a Franks Hearing, is whether that informant has given false statements to the officers in the past and, if so, was that disclosed to the judge? These are the kinds of things and these are the kinds of strategies and defenses that one would first consider when handling a federal case involving possession with intent to distribute where a search warrant was executed.
Now, when you are in a larger trafficking/drug enterprise cases, one of the first things that you want to focus on is the Title III wiretaps. You’ve really got to take the time to have the defense attorney and a government investigator comb through those calls. We want to make sure that the things that are relied on by the law enforcement officers actually indicate what they say they indicate, or whether there is a very innocent non-illegal explanation for the conversations that are recorded.
Often in the United States, when you listen to a Title III intercept, you’re not going to hear someone say something like, “I want to buy five kilos of cocaine. Can you meet me Tuesday at 12 o’clock under the Brooklyn Bridge?” That’s never going to happen. What you’re going to hear are things like, “Hey man, remember those T-shirts that you got me the other day? I really liked them. I want to get two more of them. Can you meet in the place that we were three weeks ago after the cookout?”
That’s the kind of conversation that you’re going to hear and law enforcement officers go through great pains to try to come up with what is basically a decoding system to try to figure out what exactly these calls mean. Many times, these calls are subject to interpretation. What one officer says that a call means, somebody else might think means something completely different. It’s up to the defense to challenge the premises under which the government case lies. Just like a house of cards, if there’s not a good foundation, you pull one out and the whole thing falls down. That’s the type of stuff that we look for when dealing with a broader narcotics conspiracy or a narcotics enterprise case.