Federal Criminal Drug Cases in Philadelphia: Defining “Knowingly or Intentionally”

Federal drug and gun cases in Philadelphia are very common. In fact, PWIM (possession with intent to manufacture) and PWID (possession with intent to deliver) are among some of the most common federal criminal cases in the Philadelphia area, including the immediate suburbs (Montgomery County, Delaware County, Chester County, etc.). According to data from the United States Sentencing Commission, drug crimes account for over 30% of all federal prosecutions each year; gun possession charges account for about 10%. The three most common drugs in federal drug prosecutions are cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.

Under federal law, in a Philadelphia drug case, the government must prove the following elements:

1. the defendant possessed a controlled substance,

2. the defendant did so knowingly or intentionally,

3. the defendant intended to manufacture or distribute the substance, and

4. the nature of the controlled substance (i.e., the substance was cocaine, crack, heroin, etc.).

In addition, when the government alleges a weight threshold that authorizes increased maximum penalties under Section 841(b), the government must also prove the actual weight (i.e., X grams or more). Read more about federal sentences in criminal drug cases in Philadelphia.


In order to act with knowledge or intent as required under federal drug PWID/PWIM criminal law, the U.S. Attorney’s Office must prove that the accused individual was conscious and aware of the nature of their actions and knew the surrounding facts and circumstances giving rise to the offenses charged. The prosecution is not required to prove that the accused individual knew what they were doing was illegal or criminal.

The phrase “knowingly or intentionally,” as used in the PWID/PWIM law requires the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused individual knew that what they manufactured/distributed/possessed with the intent to manufacture or distribute was a controlled substance.

Also, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the controlled substance was in fact the specific drug alleged in the indictment (i.e., cocaine, crack, meth, etc.). However, the government doesn’t have to prove that the accused individual knew the substance was in fact, the drug alleged. For instance, a Philadelphia resident believes they are selling cocaine, when in fact, they are selling heroin. The individual can still be convicted of selling heroin, despite the fact that they thought they were selling cocaine. See United States v. Barbosa, a 2001 3rd Circuit (PA) case.

Related: Reducing a Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentence in a Pennsylvania Drug Case


If you or a loved is facing federal drug charges in Philadelphia, please call our office for a free consultation. David S. Nenner is an experienced criminal trial lawyer specializing in drug and gun cases. (215) 515-0042

Disclaimer: This website does not create any attorney-client relationship or provide legal advice. Our lawyers provide legal advice only after accepting a case. It is imperative that any action taken is done on advice of counsel. Read full disclaimer below.

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