In a typical drug or criminal case in New Jersey, the first thing that must be determined is whether the charge is for a disorderly persons offense or a more serious felony-level offense. A disorderly persons offense tends to apply to less serious drug charges like possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a small amount of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS). These cases are handled in the local municipal court of the city or town where the offense allegedly occurred. In New Jersey, drug cases are heard in either municipal court or superior court. Drug charges in the municipal court typically involve lesser offenses. More serious drug crimes are handled in the county superior court. Since the prosecutor must first obtain an indictment from a grand jury a trial can occur, these are known as “indictable offenses.” In essence, a crime of any degree is a felony or indictable offense.
When a drug case is heard at the municipal court level, there is no jury. A judge will listen to parties in the case, determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty, and then possibly issue a sentence that could involve jail time. By contrast, a superior court drug case happens with a trial by jury, and the possible penalties include prison time. In some superior court drug cases involving drug trafficking charges or drug distribution charges, the defendant could be subject to a mandatory prison sentence if convicted.
What Drug Charges You can get in New Jersey
Narcotics are regulated in New Jersey according to “drug schedules” set forth in the NJ Controlled Dangerous Substances Act. This law specifically regulates the use, sale, prescribing, handling, and labeling of any drug or controlled dangerous substance (CDS) that may have the potential for abuse. Keep in mind that this applies to both legal and illegal drugs, so even a medication such as cough syrup is covered by the statute. In the majority of instances, the more dangerous the drug, the closer to zero its schedule. For example, heroin is classified as a Schedule I CDS, while cough syrup with codeine is a Schedule V CDS. Drugs classified in Schedule I, II, or III typically carry stricter regulations on use and more severe penalties for anyone found to be violating the law. Some of the most common drug charges in New Jersey include the following:
- Marijuana Distribution
- Cocaine Possession and Distribution
- Heroin Possession and Distribution
- Prescription Drug Offenses
- Drug Paraphernalia Possession
- School Zone Drug Offenses
- Public Park Drug Offenses
As one might expect, the penalties for a drug distribution offense tend to be more severe than the penalties for a drug possession offense. However, it is worth noting that a person can be charged with a distribution offense even if they did not actually sell drugs. This is because the NJ criminal code also prohibits something known as “possession with intent to distribute.” What exactly does this mean? If a person is found by law enforcement with a heavy weight of illegal drugs or a high number of prescription pills, then authorities can infer that the drugs are not for personal use. Instead, the assumption will be that the individual planned to sell the drugs, which would constitute illegal drug distribution. Since the penalties for intent to distribute are indistinguishable from the penalties for actual distribution, you may face significant prison time if convicted.
School Zone Drug Offenses
The standard penalties for drug crimes in New Jersey are already pretty harsh, but they can be even harsher when the drug offense was committed by someone in a school zone or public park. The drug crime laws allow for enhanced penalties in these instances, and judges often impose the maximum allowable prison sentences as a way to discourage future offenders who might think twice before exposing young children to drugs. The law against school zone drug violations in NJ imposes a minimum mandatory term of incarceration for anyone who is convicted of distributing drugs in a protected area.
If you have been accused of selling a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) in a school building, on a school bus, or anywhere else in a school zone, contact a knowledgeable attorney immediately. Not only could a conviction expose you to significant prison time for the underlying drug distribution offense, but the fact that it occurred within a protected school zone could expose you to additional prison time. Specifically, the judge can sentence you to an extra three (3) years in prison for selling cocaine or heroin, and at least one (1) extra year for selling marijuana or prescription drugs.
Distributing and Intent to Sell Drugs Near Public Property
The law against public park drug violations in NJ also imposes a minimum mandatory prison sentence for any individual who is convicted of distributing drugs in or near a public space. The statute covers not just public parks, but also public housing facilities for low-income residents and other government-owned buildings. Additionally, the law includes the area around the public space and covers a 500-foot radius surrounding the area. Basically, the statute allows for upgraded charges and enhanced penalties because all public park drug distribution offenses are classified as second degree felonies, regardless of the type of drug or weight, unless the drug in question is marijuana. This means that all it takes is a small amount of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, or prescription drugs to expose you to up to 10 years in prison under the enhanced charges for public park drug distribution offenses.
What If It’s My First Time Being Charged with a Criminal Offense?
Although most drug offenses in New Jersey carry harsh punishments, some first-time offenders are able to avoid jail. This is made possible when the defendant secures admission into a diversionary program like Pretrial Intervention (PTI) or an alternative sentencing option like Drug Court. PTI is only available in certain drug cases that involve a defendant with no prior convictions. This applies as well to low-level drug cases in municipal court with a program called conditional discharge. If you are admitted into one of these special programs, the court will sentence you to probation and drug treatment/rehabilitation instead of prison. The focus of these programs is on recovery instead of punishment, which is why the defendant is typically required to attend drug counseling, take frequent drug tests, and generally stay out of trouble during their probationary period. Upon completion of these requirements, the drug charge is dismissed, and the defendant is free to move forward with their life without a drug crime conviction appearing on their criminal record.
Possible Defenses Available in New Jersey Drug Cases
These are some of the most common defenses in New Jersey drug cases:
- Illegal search by police. Before conducting a search of you or your property, police must have (a) a search warrant, (b) your consent for a search, (c) clear view of drugs in plain sight, (d) probable cause to believe there are drugs present or evidence of a crime, or (e) a reasonable belief that exigent circumstances require an immediate search of the premises.
- Issues with chain of custody for evidence. After police find evidence of drugs, they must take careful steps to ensure that the evidence is properly handled and documented every step of the way. For example, there must be clear documentation when the evidence is transferred from police to a lab for testing and then to the prosecutor.
- No evidence of drugs. It may be hard to believe, but it’s actually possible for police to seize a harmless substance that they mistake for illegal drugs. Your attorney can make sure that any lab tests show that the evidence seized in your case was not a controlled dangerous substance.
- Drug weight error. NJ drug charges typically carry more severe penalties when the drug amounts or weights are higher. A mistake by law enforcement when weighing the drug evidence in your case could lead to the prosecutor incorrectly filing more serious charges against you.
- Violation of your Fifth Amendment rights. Police must advise you of your constitutional right against self-incrimination before they subject you to formal questioning. They can ask you about the drugs in your possession during a traffic stop or other interaction, but you do not have to answer. You should also contact an attorney before subjecting yourself to any questions at the police station, as anything you say can be used to prosecute you.
The best way to identify and raise defenses in your drug possession or distribution case is to have a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney representing you.
Get Morris County Defense Lawyer Help with Your Drug Case
The punishments for drug charges make it critically important for you to have a skilled criminal defense lawyer handling your drug case. An experienced attorney may be able to get your drug charges downgraded to a lesser offense, which means that the case would be transferred from superior court to municipal court, or reduced from a disorderly persons offense to a municipal ordinance violation, both of which ultimately mean you would no longer face more severe penalties.
It also might be possible for your attorney to secure your admission into a diversionary program or obtain an alternative sentence that protects your future and your freedom to the greatest extent possible. In some cases, an effective defense argument can allow you to avoid conviction entirely. What it takes is a thorough analysis, knowledge of the court rules and procedures, a solid handle on defense strategies, and a commitment to fighting for you. Contact an experienced criminal attorney now to challenge the drug charges you face in Morris County or anywhere in New Jersey.