What is the Best Way to Fight a Drug Possession or Drug Dealing Charge in Pennsylvania?
Facing drug possession or drug dealing charges in Philly, Delaware County, Chester County, etc.? You will want to know the best way to fight the charges.
There are many ways to fight a drug charge in Pennsylvania. Two common ways to attack a drug charge case are 1. attacking the legal basis for the search or seizure of the drugs, or 2. making factual arguments that damage the prosecution’s case.
Fighting the Facts
One way to fight a drug possession charge is to fight a critical fact that the prosecution has to prove. Here are the elements of a drug possession charge:
- the item is in fact a controlled substance as opposed to a counterfeit or fake,
- the defendant actually possessed the item, and
- the defendant knew or was aware of the item and knew that it was a controlled substance.
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In some drug possession or drug dealing (Possession with Intent to Deliver) cases, you may be able to dispute one or more of the elements. You may be able to argue that the backpack where the drugs were found wasn’t yours. This can be done through cross examine of prosecution witnesses or police officers or by presenting evidence which clearly shows that the backpack belongs to someone else.
There are multiple legal attacks in a Pennsylvania drug possession or drug dealing (Possession with Intent to Distribute) case, such as double jeopardy, statute of limitations, speedy trial, etc. These tend to be pretty uncommon. For purposes of this article, our criminal law firm will focus on constitutional law attacks, which are the most common types of legal attack in drug charge cases.
Drug Evidence Search & Seizure Issues – Constitutional Law Violations May Lead to Dismissal
In Pennsylvania, most drug possession and drug dealing cases stem from police encounters on the street or during traffic stops. How police officers searched and seized the drugs and evidence must be analyzed for any constitutional law violations. Violations of the 4th, and 5th and 6th Amendments can lead to suppression of the evidence. When a court suppresses evidence, the prosecution can’t use it or even mention it in their case. This usually leads to dismissal of the drug charges.
You’re riding in your friend’s car in Philly when you’re pulled over for a traffic violation. The officer comes up to the driver’s window with a gun drawn and asks everyone to put their hands up and exit the car. Afterwards, another officer searches the car and finds a bag of cocaine in the backseat. You and another backseat passenger are arrested and charged with possession.
The problem with these kinds of stops is that police in Pennsylvania often engage in pre-textual traffic stops. They’ll pull a car over for a bogus traffic violation, like swerving, crossing the center line, failing to use a turn signal or failing to stop at a stop sign. Then, an officer will question the people in the car about drugs, guns, or other contraband. This frequently happens in Philadelphia, Delaware County, Lackawanna County, etc., and is how officers often find significant quantities of drugs.
Under PA law, an officer is not allowed to extend a traffic stop beyond the time it takes to obtain license and insurance documents and issue a ticket. In order to continue the traffic stop, the officer has to have either reasonable suspicion (which justifies an “investigative detention”) or probable cause (which justifies an arrest). Read more about traffic stops in Pennsylvania drug and gun cases.
Here’s an example of a legitimate traffic stop using the same scenario above. After the car is pulled over, the officer walks up to the driver’s side door. The driver rolls down the window, and the officer smells burning crack cocaine and sees a crack pipe on the passenger seat in the back. The officer now has probable cause to search the car.
Stop & Frisk on the Street – Did You Get Stopped and Patted Down?
You’re walking down the street with a friend. A police officer driving a patrol car stops next to you. The officer gets out and asks you where you’re going. He says that there’s been reports of drug dealing on the nearby corner and asks whether you’ve seen any drug deals. You answer that you’re going to your friend’s house and haven’t seen anything illegal happening on the corner. The officer then asks you what’s in your jacket pockets. When you say that you have nothing in your pockets, the officer tells you to take off your jacket so he can see for himself. Inside a pocket, the officer finds scales and several bags of cocaine. You’re arrested and charged with Possession with Intent to Distribute.
Officers who’re in high crime areas often stop citizens. Merely questioning a citizen is legally allowed, but once a reasonable person would feel detained (not free to leave), the officer is required to be able to show reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is happening. Once the officer has reasonable suspicion, the officer can conduct a limited pat down or frisk of the person’s outer clothing and pockets. But, an officer cannot reach into a pocket.
In the above scenario, once the officer asked what was in your pockets, the officer has to be able to point to facts that support reasonable suspicion that some criminal activity is happening. Merely walking down the street is perfectly legal and nothing you’ve done would suggest any criminal activity. A court would probably agree and suppress the drug evidence. Read more about stop and pat in drug cases.