Drug Lawyers – Criminal Defense


DRUG CHARGESKenneth Quillen at work

Drug cases can be as simple as a teenager arrested with a joint and charged with simple possession or as complicated as a multi-kilo drug conspiracy with 35 co-defendants.

In the case of a person charged with misdemeanor drug possession the lawyer’s job is protecting the client’s good name. This often means side-stepping the charge.

In Nashville, a first offense might be dismissed on payment of court costs. Or, prosecutors might offer a “plea under advisement” wherein the defendant agrees pay court costs and do eight hours of public service work. A second court date is set to show proof of the public service work after which the lawyer can process the expungement. Another alternative is “judicial diversion” which might include a year of probation after which the charge can be expunged at a cost of $450 paid to the Court Clerk.

Big drug conspiracies may require a lawyer to spend hundreds of hours going over discovery delivered on many CD’s. These documents usually include search warrants, wiretap applications, and linesheets which are written summaries produced from wiretaps.

Drug case Linesheets are written summaries of drug case wiretap recordings.

One linesheet page out of 20,000

A lawyer defending a drug case must examine all these documents and listen to audio recordings and watch videos. It is like turning over rocks– looking for evidence that hurts and maybe something that helps.

The defense lawyer may find a weakness in the Government’s case. Perhaps there is an unconstitutional vehicle stop or defects in a search warrant or wiretap application which would require the judge to suppress evidence.

Police often seize legitimate assets including vehicles, real estate and currency. In Tennessee, at the state level, these seizures are processed by the Department of Safety. The defense lawyer can often get some of these assets back for his client.

Up until ten years ago the Nashville Drug Task Force lacked the training to obtain and execute wiretaps in a constitutionally sound manner. Then they went to school and learned how to do it right. However, the recent dissolution of the drug task force may change all that.

At the Federal level successfully challenging a wiretap has become something of an urban myth. Federal wiretap applications are reviewed at multiple levels within the District and by the higher-ups in Washington, D.C. I cannot remember the last time a wiretap was thrown out.

currency seized in drug arrest

$100 bills seized after execution of search warrant

Federal prosecutors go into drug trials with a 97% conviction rate. The defense lawyer must find some weakness in the case that will lower those odds ore perhaps provide leverage in plea negotiations. It is not an easy job.

Tennessee Sentencing laws are complicated and what follows is a simplified table of penalties for various drug offenses including marijuana, cocaine, meth and heroin:

Marijuana Penalties:
Amount Std Range Full Range Fine
< ½ oz 11 mos+29 days same as standard $250
< ½ oz 2nd Offense $500
< ½ oz 3rd Offense Felony ! 1-2 yrs 1-6yrs $1,000
½ oz -10 lbs 1-2 yrs $2K-5K
10-70 lbs 2-4 yrs 2-12 yrs $2K-50K
70-300 lbs 8-12 yrs 8-30 yrs $2K-200K
≥ 300 lbs 15-25 yrs 15-60 yrs $2K-500K
Cocaine & Methamphetamine Penalties:
Amount Std Range Full Range Fine
< ½ gram 3-6 yrs 3-15 yrs $2K-100K
≥ 26 grams 8-12 yrs 8-30 yrs $2K-200K
≥ 300 grams 15-25 yrs 15-60 yrs $2K-500K
Heroin Penalties:
Amount Std Range Full Range Fine
< 15 grams 8-12 yrs 8-30 yrs $2K-100K
≥ 15 grams 8-12 yrs $2K-200K
≥ 150 grams 15-25 yrs 15-60 yrs $2K-500K


Drug-Free School Zones in Tennessee

Enhanced and Mandatory Minimum Sentences

 If you are charged with felony drug possession or sale within 1,000 feet of an elementary school, middle school, secondary school the charge is bumped up one felony classification and face an increased fine.  The real kicker is that there is no probation and upon conviction the defendant has sit in prison for at least for at least the minimum of the sentence range.

For example, if a person is convicted of selling an ounce of marijuana in a school zone, that person would have to spend every day of two years in lockup.  (More than ½ ounce of marijuana is usually an “E felony,” the lowest grade of felony.  The normal sentencing range for an E felony is 1-2 years.  Unless the person has an extensive criminal record, probation is virtually assured.  However, if the person is convicted selling an ounce of marijuana in a school zone, that E felony is bumped up a “D felony” with a sentencing range of 2-4 years.  Upon conviction, that person would be imprisoned for at least 730 days).

Less serious are locations involving preschool, child care agency, or public library, recreational center or park.  In these cases, the statute does not subject the defendant to additional prison time but does increase the maximum fine.  However, that same person selling one ounce of marijuana would still get at least 365 days in prison.

Before serious plea negotiation the client needs to know his worst-case sentencing exposure if convicted.  A competent criminal defense lawyer usually composes a memorandum for the client.  In more complicated school zone drug cases it is often necessary to prepare an Excel spreadsheet outlining the client’s exposure count by count.



  1. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-417.
  2. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432.
  3. Tennessee State Attorney General Opinion OAG 07-59.