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When you are charged with selling drugs in a drug-free zone

Any time that a Texas resident faces a drug offense, it's a serious matter. However, when the charge involves selling illegal drugs in a drug-free zone, the charges - and potential penalties - are even steeper.

Many people don't realize that some version of this prohibition has been enforced since 1970. That's when Congress first passed a law allowing for increased penalties for those who were convicted of specific drug offenses that took place around schools. In theory, the premise is arguably a good one, as selling contraband drugs around children's schools potentially exposes them to danger.

Drug-free zones extended

The drug-free zone laws were then expanded incrementally by state legislatures to include protected zones around other areas where kids typically hang out, such as public parks. A further expansion of the law was then passed to include public housing.

Certainly no one ever encourages sales of illegal drugs to children. But someone who allegedly was selling cocaine, prescription pills or other contraband solely to their adult contacts out of their own homes can face additional charges (and enhanced penalties if convicted) simply because they live within close proximity to a school or park. In the case of public housing, their entire geographic location is within the forbidden zone.

Policies unfairly affect minority defendants

Someone who lives out in the country on a wide swath of land has far less to fear from the police and prosecutors if they are accused of selling drugs than someone who lives in an urban environment in a high-density population zone. Typically, it is people of color and those living below the poverty line who are crammed into these high-density population zones. That means these folks face far greater legal risk for their alleged transgressions than their wealthier, white counterparts.

There is also the matter of defendants accused of contraband sales in drug-free zones facing two separate penalties for one offense. Instead of just having to defend themselves against a charge of selling cocaine, for instance, they face an additional charge of selling cocaine within a drug-free zone. That can make bail higher and increase the costs of mounting an effective criminal defense. If and when the individual is convicted of the charge, it can also mean that he or she faces a much longer prison sentence or additional restrictions and community controls in the form of house arrest, ankle-monitoring, etc.

Some limitations do apply

In recent years, some states appear to have recognized the inherent problems with the expanded drug-free zone laws. Texas is one of seven states that have narrowed the law's focus to include some wiggle room. There is an exception allowed if the alleged offender's actions occurred within a private home with no children present. But that stops short of including any financial transactions, as the exception is only applicable if the defendant garnered no profit from their actions.

The push for fairer drug laws must continue

Minorities and those who belong to lower socioeconomic groups should not have one set of rules and regulations in place for them with much less stringent laws in place for wealthier non-minorities. While those laws are not theoretically harsher and more readily applied to one group as opposed to another, in practice, all bets are off. Texas prisons are full of men and women who were convicted and given enhanced sentences due to the enforcement of drug-free zone laws.

But unless and until there are legislative and prosecutorial changes made, all defendants facing enhanced drug charges must proactively work on building a robust defense to the charges. Learning about your rights under Texas law is a prudent approach.

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R. Todd Bennett, P.C.
1545 Heights Blvd. Suite 600
Houston, TX 77008

Phone: 713-752-2728 | Fax: 713-650-1602
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