The criminal justice process is an often complicated, intense process involving multiple parties. Like any other criminal case, drug cases typically follow a pattern of investigation, prosecution and trial or plea bargain. These cases can range from very simple local drug possession cases to highly complex national drug manufacturing and distribution rings.
Like any other criminal case, a drug case starts with a criminal investigation. These investigations are carried out by law enforcement agency employed by the local, state or federal government. Usually, these cases start when the law enforcement agency receives evidence of criminal conduct. This evidence can come from various sources, including anonymous calls, police observations or citizen statements or complaints.
A key part to many drug cases are the witnesses involved. Some cases are very simple. For example, a case could involve a single police officer pulling a car over and finding marijuana. In that case, the officer is the sole witness. Other cases are much more complex. A case where a neighbor notices suspicious activity, then reports it to police, who then begin surveillance and an undercover investigation, for example, can involve dozens of witnesses.
Apart from witnesses, drug investigations can also rely on the collection of evidence. A police officer pulling a car over for a traffic stop may, for example, find drug paraphernalia inside the car. An undercover agent might buy drugs from a suspect, or make audio and visual recordings of drug transactions. Drug evidence is typically analyzed by forensic experts who can identify the chemical substance as an illegal narcotic, or perform other tests that can be used in a subsequent prosecution.
Once the law enforcement agency has gathered evidence in the course of an investigation, a prosecutor will decide whether or not to file charges. Depending on the jurisdiction and law enforcement agencies involved, different prosecutors can handle a drug case. Someone arrested for possession of marijuana by a city police officer, for example, would most likely be prosecuted by the city or county prosecutor's office. A multistate drug operation involving numerous defendants, states and investigations would likely be prosecuted by the United States Attorney's Office, the chief federal prosecutor's office.
Pleas and Trials
Once a prosecution is initiated and charges are filed against a defendant, the state has the burden of providing evidence such that there is no reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. If a guilty plea is entered, or a conviction is entered by the judge or jury, a criminal defendant can be given a range of penalties, including fines, probation or incarceration. Because many state and federal laws impose stiff penalties for drug convictions, drug offenses can often involve long periods of incarceration, sometimes longer than those imposed against violent offenders.