In early August, federal agents arrested a San Diego man for his involvement in a drug smuggling operation. What makes this case special? The man was a part of San Diego’s first confirmed case of using a drone to transport drugs across the border into the city. Technology has officially changed the way drug smuggling and trafficking operations work. Drugs can now be brought across the border into San Diego and other cities by an unmanned drone under the cover of darkness. This particular operation attempted to bring 13 pounds of heroin worth more than $46,000 to the streets of San Diego.
Will the use of this new technology reduce a person’s criminal liability for transporting illegal drugs? Probably not, at least for the time being. Federal and California state drug laws are written to be fairly broad. Broadly written laws allow prosecutors to charge criminal offenses for a wide range of behaviors and actions. In this case, the San Diego drone drug smuggler was arrested and charged with the federal crime of Importing a Controlled Substance. The man could also face California state criminal charges. If he were charged with a crime in California it would likely be for Sale or Transport of a Controlled Substance.
Importing a Controlled Substance, defined in United States Code Section 952, makes it a crime to import any controlled substance (as listed in the statute) into the United States for unlawful purposes. Heroin is explicitly listed as one of the prohibited controlled substances. At first glance, it may seem as though “import” is a vague term. Most laws define the terms that are used, and this law is no different. Import, for the purposes of this law, means to bring in or introduce illegal drugs into the United States. The man in the San Diego drone smuggling case retrieved 13 pounds of heroin from a drone that had flown across the border. He then moved those drugs to a different location so that they could be picked up by another party. Even though he did not physically move the drugs across the border himself he did assist in the act. Removing the drugs from the drone is probably enough to establish that he “introduced” drugs into the country in violation of the law.
Sale or Transport of a Controlled Substance, defined in California Health & Safety Code Section 11352, makes it a crime to sell, furnish, administer, transport, or import certain illegal drugs – including heroin – into the state of California with the intent to sell them (or give them away). The broadly written statute allows prosecutors to charge this crime for a wide range of behaviors related to moving illegal drugs. A conviction under the California law does not require that the drugs cross a border. Instead, the California law criminalizes the movement of illegal drugs from one location to another. When the San Diego man moved the heroin from the drone to another location to pass them off to another person, he violated the law. Prosecutors will have to prove that he intended to sell the drugs, give them away, or make a profit by handing them off to the next person in the smuggling operation.
California and federal drug laws are written broadly so that they can be applicable to a wide range of criminal behaviors. For the time being, these laws should be able to keep up with changes in technology. However, it will be important to understand when changes in the law may limit criminal liability because of technology. Prosecutors must establish that a person charged with a crime is guilty of all of the crime’s essential elements. Technology could soon make it unnecessary for individuals to engage in certain behaviors that are currently considered essential elements. In those situations, an experienced California criminal defense attorney will jump at the chance to argue that a prosecutor cannot make his or her case.