DC Drug Trials

DC drug trials can be very involved meaning there is a lot of work that needs to be done when building a defense. Most drug cases are heard in DC Superior Court, however, more serious drug cases are heard in DC District Court, which is the federal court. Drug cases involving a very large quantity of drugs or a drug trafficking conspiracy are most often heard in federal court. Misdemeanor drug cases are almost always bench trials. Felony cases are jury

Misdemeanor drug cases are almost always bench trials while felony cases are jury trials, unless the person agrees to waive a jury. In either case, an experienced DC drug attorney can help their client to prepare for their drug case, and help to understand what to expect throughout the legal process.

What The Prosecution Must Prove

With a drug trial in DC, the prosecution must prove that the drug was actually a controlled substance. The prosecution must prove that the person charged possessed the drugs knowingly and with intent to possess the drugs. For a conspiracy case, the government must prove that the person knowingly engaged in an agreement with one or more other people to be involved in drug trafficking. The prosecution must prove all of these things beyond a reasonable doubt.

Contested Elements

The issue of intent is always contested in a trial for possessing drugs with intent to distribute. The issue of possession is often highly contested at trial, particularly in cases where drugs were not found on a person but rather in a car, a house, or some other area.

Length of Trial

The duration of drug offense cases can vary widely based on the facts and circumstances of the case, the number of people involved, and which court handles the case. Generally, a misdemeanor case is handled more quickly than a felony case. Misdemeanor cases can be resolved within a matter of weeks or up to several months. A felony DC drug case can take longer depending upon the number of people involved, and the number of charges.

When someone is held in custody during the pendency of their case, under the law in DC, their right to a speedy trial is a trial within 100 days from the arrest. For a felony, the government must secure an indictment from a grand jury. That must happen within 90 days of the arrest. If that cannot be accomplished, the person charged needs to be released from custody. For someone who is not in custody pending the outcome of the case, the government must secure an indictment in a felony case within nine months of their arrest, otherwise, the case cannot proceed and will be dismissed. The government is usually permitted to refile charges within a reasonable amount of time in that circumstance.


Sentencing for drug-related crimes in DC depends on the court and the charge. In DC Superior Court, when sentencing a misdemeanor personal possession case, the court does not look to any sentencing guideline. Rather, the court looks to the facts of the case, the specific facts about the person charged, and their criminal history to determine the sentence. That could include jail time, probation, probation with some jail time, and different conditions of probation. In a felony case in DC Superior Court, the court looks to the DC sentencing guidelines to determine the appropriate sentence for the person charged given the current crime and their criminal history. The specific facts surrounding the case and the defendant’s criminal history are the most important factors when considering sentencing in their drug case in DC.

When someone is convicted of drug distribution or possession with intent to distribute drugs in DC Superior Court and it is their first criminal offense of any kind, they can be probation eligible. That means the judge does not have to give them any jail time. If the person has a significant criminal history, the DC sentencing guidelines may not give the judge the discretion to sentence the defendant to probation. The judge may feel compelled to follow the guidelines and sentence the person to a term in prison.

In District Court, the federal sentencing guidelines are much more strict and severe. The guidelines are advisory and not mandatory. Nevertheless, the judges follow them and consult with them and must have a good reason to depart from them. In federal court, a conviction in a drug case almost always results in some period of imprisonment.

Constitutional Issues

In DC drug trials, there may be some constitutional issues that can arise. A challenge to the police officer’s justification to stop and search the person is very common in drug cases. If the police did not have any ongoing investigation into the specific individual who was charged with possession with intent to distribute drugs, but rather came upon them in some other fashion like a traffic stop or some other interaction and discovered some quantity of drugs, the police must justify why they stopped the individual.

They must explain why they searched the individual’s person, belongings, residence, or car. The police must have a legal justification for any search. There must be probable cause. An experienced defense attorney looks at that very closely for any basis to challenge that justification for the search and seizure. Other possible issues are whether or not any statements made by the person to law enforcement were in violation of their Miranda rights. Those are the most prevalent constitutional issues in drug trials in DC.