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21 U.S.C. § 844 - Simple Possession Of A Controlled Substance


Title 21, United States Code, Section 844 (21 U.S.C. § 844) is a federal statute that addresses the unlawful possession of controlled substances. Under this law, it is illegal for any person to knowingly possess a controlled substance without a valid prescription or other legal authorization.

In Southern California Federal Courts, particularly in the United States Central District of California, it’s common for prosecutors to accuse individuals of breaking the law defined in 21 U.S.C. § 844. This law deals with what’s often called “simple possession of controlled substances.” Essentially, if someone has a controlled substance in their possession, they can face charges under this statute. Depending on the circumstances, these charges can be classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

Elements For Section 844 (21 U.S.C. § 844)

The legal system requires the prosecution to demonstrate that an individual consciously and purposefully possesses a controlled substance without a legitimate prescription. This charge is typically invoked when someone is found with drugs intended for personal use. It’s worth emphasizing that possession doesn’t solely pertain to having drugs physically on one’s body. Prosecutors can pursue a Simple Possession charge if drugs are discovered in a location under the individual’s control, such as a vehicle or their residence.

In legal proceedings, there’s no requirement for the prosecution to establish the exact quantity or volume of a controlled substance. Their burden is simply to demonstrate the presence of any discernible amount, which sets a relatively low evidentiary threshold. However, there are exceptions to this principle.

In the case of Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit covering California, it was established that when the quantity of drugs is so substantial that it would lead to increased penalties for possession, a jury must decide whether the defendant did indeed have that specific amount of drugs.

Furthermore, it’s crucial to note that the defendant’s knowledge of the precise identity of the controlled substance isn’t a prerequisite. What matters is that they were aware they possessed a controlled substance, not necessarily that they knew the specific type, like methamphetamine. This underscores the prosecution’s duty to prove that the defendant was aware of the illicit nature of the substance in their possession.

Under What Circumstances Can An Individual Face Simple Possession Charges?

For example, consider a scenario where federal law enforcement officers execute a search warrant on a person’s residence and discover a small quantity of marijuana in their bedroom. If the individual cannot provide a legitimate prescription for the marijuana and it is clear that they had control over it.

In this situation, there are no apparent signs of intent to distribute, such as the absence of drug paraphernalia or scales, other items present like packaging materials, and a substantial amount of cash. In such cases, prosecutors may opt to charge the individual with Simple Possession of a Controlled Substance instead, as there are no clear indicators of drug distribution. Therefore, federal prosecutors are more likely to charge the individual with Simple Possession of a Controlled Substance, as the circumstances suggest personal use rather than intent to distribute under federal law.


Common Defenses To Federal Drug Possession For Sales Charges

Sometimes, a person may be charged with possession for sale (a much more serious charge), even though they actually possessed the drug for personal use. Defending against federal drug possession charges for trafficking can be complicated, but there are many common defenses that individuals can use with the help of an attorney. It is important to note that the effectiveness of these protections may vary depending on the particular circumstances of the case.

  • Lack of Intent: Arguing that the defendant did not have the intent to distribute the drugs is a strong defense. If the prosecution cannot prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt, it may lead to reduced charges or an acquittal.
  • Illegal Search and Seizure: If evidence was obtained through an illegal search or seizure, it may be deemed inadmissible in court. Violations of the Fourth Amendment, such as conducting a search without a warrant or without valid consent, can be grounds for suppression of evidence.
  • Chain of Custody Issues: Challenging the integrity of the evidence by questioning the chain of custody can be a successful defense. If it can be shown that the evidence was mishandled or tampered with, its credibility may be undermined.
  • Unlawful Arrest: If the defendant’s arrest was conducted without probable cause or other legal justification, it can serve as a basis for a defense. This can lead to evidence being excluded or the case being dismissed.
  • Mistaken Identity: If the prosecution’s case relies heavily on eyewitness testimony, a defense attorney may argue that the defendant was wrongly identified as the person involved in drug distribution.
  • Lack of Knowledge: Demonstrating that the defendant had no knowledge of the presence of drugs can be a viable defense. This is particularly relevant in cases where the drugs were found in a shared space, like a vehicle or a residence.
  • Medical Necessity: In rare cases, individuals may have a valid medical necessity defense if they can prove that they possessed a controlled substance under the guidance of a medical professional and for legitimate medical purposes.
  • Entrapment: If law enforcement officials induced the defendant to commit a crime they would not have otherwise committed, the entrapment defense may apply.
  • Other factors: the manner that the drugs were found may also be relevant in determining whether they were possessed for sale or personal use. For instance, a larger amount of drugs would strengthen the argument that they were for sale. Small baggies, razors and scales would also support the contention that the drugs were intended for sale.
  • Constructive Possession: In cases where drugs are found in a location shared by multiple individuals, the defense may argue that the defendant did not have exclusive control over the drugs and therefore cannot be charged with possession for sales.
  • Prosecution’s Burden of Proof: Challenging the sufficiency of the prosecution’s evidence and pointing out inconsistencies or weaknesses in their case can lead to reasonable doubt and a favorable outcome for the defendant.

The central element in this charge hinges on the defendant’s knowing possession of the substance in question. Consider this: if the individual found with cocaine had recently borrowed or rented the car they were driving, and the previous driver had left their drugs in the vehicle, this could potentially serve as a defense. In such a case, the defendant’s lack of awareness about the existence of the drugs is a crucial factor.

Additionally, it’s paramount to verify that the search leading to the drug discovery was conducted in a lawful manner. Having a skilled attorney is vital when dealing with potentially unlawful searches and seizures. Evidence from an unconstitutional search can be excluded from court proceedings because it’s considered tainted. This principle, known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree,” renders such evidence inadmissible. Therefore, if the police conducted an unconstitutional search, it could provide a valid defense against a Simple Possession charge.

A Mistake of Fact defense is applicable when a defendant genuinely believed that the substance they possessed was not a controlled substance, even if their belief turned out to be incorrect. For prosecutors to secure a conviction, they must establish that the defendant was aware the substance was a controlled substance (or an analogue to one). If they cannot prove this knowledge, someone who possessed what they believed to be a bag of baking flour could not be convicted, even if the substance was later determined to be cocaine. 

Related Crimes

  • 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) – Possession with Intent to Distribute
  • 21 USC § 848 – Continuing Criminal Enterprise – “Drug Kingpin Statute”
  • 21 U.S.C. § 863 – Possession of Drug Paraphernalia
  • 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) – Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Distribute
  • 21 U.S.C. § 846 – Drug Conspiracy
  • California Health and Safety Code Section 11350, Possession of Methamphetamine.
  • California Health and Safety Code Section 11350, Possession of Cocaine
  • California Health and Safety Code Section 11350, Possession of Heroin

It’s important to note that the penalties for these offenses can vary significantly based on factors such as the type and quantity of drugs involved, prior criminal history, and whether the offense occurred in a designated drug-free zone. Additionally, the specific penalties can be subject to change through amendments to federal drug laws or sentencing guidelines. Understand the drug offender registry in California if you have been convicted of certain drug offenses.


Potential Penalties:

Under 21 U.S.C. § 844, the penalties for drug-related offenses depend on various factors, including the type and quantity of the controlled substance involved, any prior convictions, and whether the offense occurred in a designated drug-free zone. Here are the general penalties for simple possession of controlled substances under federal law:

First Offense (Misdemeanor):

  • A first offense for simple possession of a controlled substance is typically classified as a misdemeanor.
  • Penalties can include a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment for up to 1 year.
  • These penalties can vary based on the specific drug involved and whether it’s a Schedule I or II controlled substance.

Second Offense (Misdemeanor):

  • If an individual has a prior drug conviction and is convicted of simple possession again, the penalties can increase.
  • A second offense for simple possession can result in a fine of up to $2,500 and imprisonment for up to 2 years.

Third Or Subsequent Offenses (Felony):

  • A third or subsequent offense for simple possession can be classified as a felony.
  • Penalties may include a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment for up to 3 years.

These penalties are for federal offenses, and individual states may have their own drug possession laws with different penalties. Additionally, penalties can be more severe for possession of certain controlled substances, especially those classified as Schedule I substances.

Furthermore, the penalties can be influenced by factors such as the quantity of the controlled substance, whether the offense involves a minor, and whether the individual has a history of drug-related convictions. Additionally, penalties can change based on amendments to federal drug laws or sentencing guidelines. Therefore, consulting with an attorney who specializes in federal drug offenses is essential to understand the specific penalties that may apply to a particular case. If you’re looking for information on expunging a federal crime in California, be sure to check out the blog post “Can A Federal Crime Be Expunged In California?” for valuable insights.

Legal Representation For Simple Possession Cases

Under 21 U.S.C. § 844, Simple Possession of a Controlled Substance is a grave legal matter, and it’s important to recognize that federal law can impose more severe penalties compared to California state law. If you or a family member has faced arrest or charges related to possession of a controlled substance, it’s crucial to seek immediate guidance from a proficient federal criminal defense attorney.

Cyrus Tabibnia, with an extensive background in prosecution spanning many years, possesses the expertise required to mount effective defenses for individuals accused of drug-related offenses. He is committed to ensuring that his clients receive the strongest possible defense.

If you have been charged with drug crime anywhere in Los Angeles County, reach out to Cyrus, a drug crime defense attorney today to set up a free consultation and get started with your defense. Call (866) 713-2159.

Tabibnia Law Firm is serving its clients throughout Southern California including Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Orange County, Beverly Hills, San Fernando Valley, Ventura county, Riverside County, Sherman Oaks, Encino, Pasadena, Burbank, Glendale, Long Beach, Palmdale, Santa Clarita, Monterey Park, La Puente, Van Nuys, Pomona, Manhattan Beach, West Covina, Whittier, Downey, Woodland Hills, Norwalk, Torrance, Redondo Beach, San Bernardino, Walnut Creek, Inglewood, Lancaster, Westlake Village and nearby areas.

Cyrus Tabibnia

Cyrus Tabibnia

Tabibnia Law Firm retains years of experience successfully representing individuals charged with misdemeanor and felony crimes,Theft Crimes, Crime Against Children, Driving Crimes, Rape Crimes, driving under the influence (DUIs), domestic violence cases, drug possession cases, state and federal crimes, white color crimes, driving on a suspended license offenses, violent crimes, sex crimes, Forgery and all other criminal defense cases throughout Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Orange County, San Fernando Valley, Ventura County, Riverside County, San Bernardino, Van Nuys, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills. An expungement attorney in Los Angeles who can assist you in clearing your criminal record in the state of California. Call for a consultation today: 866-713-2159

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