Federal drug laws are notoriously harsh. Penalties for convictions can bring heavy fines and lengthy minimum sentences, even for what may seem like a relatively minor offense. If a case involves certain additional factors, a defendant risks facing an even harsher penalty.

That includes instances in which authorities believe a drug-related activity harmed another individual. So, just how much can that affect a potential prison sentence? A recent case from South Carolina offers an example.

A single speedball and a deadly overdose

Federal authorities accused James Latron Sumter, 35 years old, of selling a cocaine and heroin mix – referred to as a speedball – to a man and woman on a December evening in 2017. That man and woman then drove to another home where the woman took the drugs, according to the Department of Justice. She overdosed and eventually died in the backseat of a car.

In this case, Sumter was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and heroin. The woman’s death, however, significantly increased the sentence he faced if found guilty.

If this case involved a straightforward charge that did not result in someone’s death, Sumter may have faced just five or 10 years in prison, depending on the amount of heroin and cocaine in the mixture he was accused of selling to the man and woman.

However, under federal sentencing guidelines, a drug conviction that “results in death or serious bodily injury” generally results in an increased penalty. That is why Sumter instead faced 20 years to life in prison, and was ultimately sentenced to the minimum after a guilty plea.

Defending against federal drug charges

Severe penalties is one of the reasons facing a drug-related accusation from the Department of Justice can seem daunting. A charge is not a conviction however. There are ways to try to minimize the impact of federal drug charges, such as by:

  • Challenging evidence
  • Scrutinizing the behavior of law enforcement agents
  • Considering potential avenues of cooperation
  • Seeking a plea deal when it might make sense

It is important that if you have been charged – or simply believe you might be a person of interest – you reach out to a federal criminal defense attorney right away. U.S. courts have their own rules and procedures, requiring knowledge beyond what is needed for state courts.

The sooner you have someone in your corner fighting for your rights, the better.