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One of the results of the War on Drugs is that most drug crimes carry an incredibly severe mandatory sentence – especially when they are tried at the federal level. Because of this, it is important to understand how a charge could potentially get federal attention instead of being fought in state court.


In this post, we’re going to detail the various factors that might lead to drug trafficking being tried in federal court. That being said, it is important to remember that – ultimately – the federal government has jurisdiction over any criminal act that is covered under federal laws.


Where drug crimes are concerned, this means that, technically, pretty much every single drug crime can potentially be a federal charge – it comes down to whether or not the federal government thinks it is worth their time to take on the case.


State Vs. Federal Drug Trafficking Charges in Colorado: Who Decides?


So, who decides whether a drug case will be tried in a state or federal court? While the answer differs from one state to another, the following entities are mostly tasked with sorting cases into state and federal judicial systems:


  • The investigating agents decide whether to send the case to state or federal prosecutors.
  • The prosecutor may decide whether to prosecute at the state or federal level.
  • Some states have groups of law enforcers that hold well-structured meetings each month to decide where different cases will be heard.


Since it’s the executive branch of the judiciary that sorts cases into state and federal court systems, neither your defense counsel nor the judges will have a formal role on how the decision is made. That notwithstanding, an experienced Denver defense attorney will know a lot about the state-federal sorting process and may at times be able to influence the decision in various ways.


This matters quite a bit when you remember that penalties for federal drug charges tend to be far more severe.

Factors That Influence Whether a Colorado Drug Trafficking Offense Will Be Charged at the State or Federal Level


Factors That Influence Whether a Colorado Drug Trafficking Offense Will Be Charged at the State or Federal Level


The laws that govern controlled substances like drugs exist at both the state and federal level. Consequently, there’s a huge potential for overlap between federal and state criminal justice systems with regards to drug trafficking.


Therefore, drug trafficking may lead to prosecution in a state or federal court. Either way, one needs proper knowledge on how to handle a drug trafficking charge.


Examples of specific instances when drug trafficking is charged under federal law include:


When a Federal Witness Names the Defendant. If a federal informant implicates you in drug trafficking, the charges against you will most likely be handled through the federal system. A good example is when someone who’s facing prosecution for drug trafficking in a federal court gives up other individuals in his/her drug trafficking network in exchange for leniency.


When the Arresting Officer Is a Federal Employee. Local and federal law enforcement officials often work together in sting operations to arrest drug traffickers. If officers from such agencies as the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) make the arrest, it’s very probable that charges that follow will be federal.


When the Crime Occurs on Federal Property. If drug trafficking occurs in national parks, federal prisons, military bases, or other forms of federal property, the charges are more likely to be federal.


When the Drug Trafficking Involves Crossing State Lines or International Bounders. Smuggling drugs into (or out of) the US from other countries or trafficking drugs through multiple states typically leads to federal charges.


Other Factors That Make Drug Trafficking a Federal Offense. Many other factors could result in drug trafficking being tried in the federal system. For instance, if the state doesn’t have the capacity to try a complicated drug trafficking case, it will be taken up at the federal level.


There are also instances when federal prosecutors request jurisdiction for one reason or another.


Additionally, as we touched on above, federal officials may – for whatever reason – compel the state to relinquish jurisdiction. The federal government could, for example, take over a low-level drug trafficking case if they think that the case might lead them to a higher-level criminal.

Federal? State? Whatever Level You’re Charged at in Colorado, You Need a Strong Defense


Denver Drug Trafficking Defense Lawyer



Three things should be crystal clear to you at this point:

  • You do not want your drug trafficking charge to become a federal case. Federal punishment often brings incredibly harsh penalties.
  • All the same, there are numerous ways in which a drug trafficking charge could turn federal. You could easily face federal prosecution even if you didn’t violate a specific federal law.
  • Federal prosecution does not automatically spell doom for a drug trafficker. With a diligent, hard-working, and committed attorney, you still have a decent chance for a favorable outcome in a federal court.



About the Author:

Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state.  She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.

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