The Rockefeller Drug Laws

The Rockefeller Drug Laws (“the RDL”) were enacted in 1973 principally through the New York State Substance Control Act (“1973 Act”). They deal with the sale and possession of drugs in New York State Penal Law. They were introduced in response to a growing problem with drug use in New York in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was felt by the authorities at the time that this could only be combatted by introducing tough jail sentences. The RDL expanded on the prevalence of drug control provisions in the Penal Law and specified out some of the toughest sentences in the country for drug offense. They removed the ability of judges to apply discretion to drug crimes and instituted harsh minimum jail sentences for those found guilty. The RDL proved highly controversial and were the subject of further legislation in 2004 and 2009 that reduced minimum sentences, and reintroduced discretion to judicial decision making, allowing alternative punishment such as treatment programs to be used in sentencing guilty parties. There are two major crimes under the RDL:

Possession of drugs -possession can be either physical possession where the drugs are found on the person, or what is called constructive possession. Constructive possession is where it can be proven that the accused had control over the person or place where the drugs were found. The Penal Code specifically makes the presence of drugs in a car a situation where it is presumed that everyone in that car had possession. The classification of the offense and the penalties that apply depends on the amount and type of the drug the offender is found with. Offenses range from Class E (the least serious) to Class A (the most serious) For example possession of less than 500 milligrams of cocaine without any intent to supply is classed as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. The law specifies the type of drug and amount required for the offense to fall into each classification.

Sale of drugs – if there is an intent to supply in relation to any drug this will always be a felony. The classification of the felony and the penalty will depend upon both the type of drug and the amount involved.

Penalties under the original legislation contained minimum sentences of 15 years to life imprisonment and maximums of 25 years to life imprisonment. Penalties have been reduced significantly since the relaxation of the RDL in 2004 and 2009. Judges are now able to choose whether to apply prison sentences or can refer offenders to boot camp prisons (shock prisons), treatment programs or place them on probation. Recommended maximum prison sentences vary based on the seriousness of the offence and will take into account factors such as whether the offence is a first offence, the amount of the drug involved and the type of the drug involved. Sentences can be less than 1 year or up to life imprisonment along with fines of up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

State law cannot contradict Federal law in relation to drugs and therefore states must base their drug laws on the federal law. It is therefore inevitable that the laws in this area are very similar. Federal Law on drug possession and sale is governed by the Controlled Substances Act 1970 (part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970) now contained in Chapter 13 of Title 21 of the United States Code. Federal law classifies drugs into 5 schedules. Schedule 1 contains drugs such as marijuana, ecstasy, LSD and heroin, considered the most harmful and Schedule 5 contains drugs such as cough suppressants considered least harmful. Generally, the seriousness of the offence and thus the sentence will depend upon both which of the Schedules the drug in question falls under and the quantity the drug the offender possesses. Although there are a number of crimes outlined under the legislation Prohibited Act A makes the manufacture, sale or possession with intent to sell of a controlled substance or a fake controlled substance illegal. This can also be called drug trafficking. Maximum sentences range from 1 year and a $100,000 fine where a Schedule 5 drug is involved up to life imprisonment and millions of dollars’ worth of fines where larger quantities of Schedule 1 drugs are involved. Simple possession of drugs without any intent to sell is dealt with separately and the penalties are less serious. Maximum sentences for simple possession range from less than 1 year and a $1000 fine for a first offence and up to between 90 days and 3 years and a $5000 fine for a third offence.

Drug possession use and sale often forms part of a complex web of criminal activity. It can be linked to violent crimes but most often is linked to theft. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says ‘in 2002, in the U.S. about a quarter of convicted property and drug offenders in local jails had committed their crimes to get money for drugs.’ Drug crimes can also be linked to racketeering (organized crime), smuggling and money laundering

It is vital to contact an top criminal defense attorney immediately if you are arrested under New York drug laws. The law on drug possession and sale is extremely complex. A thorough knowledge and ability to interpret the law is required in order to ensure that you are charged with the correct category of crime and most importantly the correct sentencing guidelines are used. An Attorney is also vital to ensure that your rights to a defense are properly exercised.

Knowledge and Intent – Quite often drugs are not found on your person but in a house or in a car. The authorities must prove that you had knowledge of these drugs and the intent to possess or sell them. Where there are a number of people who use a car or house it can be hard to prove who the drugs belonged to. Quantity and Type – As explained above the quantity and type of drugs found can have a profound effect on the sentence that you might receive for drugs possession charges. It is important to establish what the exact quantity and type of drugs was and how this might affect your case. Procedure and Evidence – There are a number of procedures that the police must follow when making arrests for drug offences. Complex evidence is involved in prosecuting these types of cases and it is often the case that unjust mistakes. An Attorney can review the evidence presented against you and advise you if your rights have been infringed.

In 2011 five Columbia University students were arrested for selling drugs from campus. The five were described as involved in a ring that ‘peddled a cornucopia of drugs – from marijuana to prescription pills to LSD-spiked candy’. They were arrested following an undercover operation during which a police officer purchased $11,000 worth of drugs from the students over a five month period. One of the students was initially offered a plea deal for a one year state jail sentence but on the basis of his Attorney’s arguments was eventually given a 6 month jail sentence. All 4 others managed after submissions by their Attorney to avoid jail time and received either probation, community service or treatment.

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