Charged with Unintentional Drug Smuggling Into the US

Unintentional drug smuggling into the US at the Arizona border

Imagine this: you’re returning from a leisurely vacation and have just landed on American soil. You’re jet-lagged and waiting in line for customs when you are suddenly pulled aside.


Your luggage is searched, and they find illicit drugs there, much to your shock. Suddenly, you're not just a weary traveler but an accused drug smuggler.


For most, this scenario sounds like a nightmare. But for a surprising number of individuals, it becomes a shocking reality. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in 2022 alone, there were over 14,000 drug seizures at U.S. borders, many involving individuals who claimed they were unaware of the drugs in their possession.


This article aims to shed light on the dark and confusing landscape of unintentional drug smuggling charges.

drug smuggling

Understanding Drug Smuggling Charges: An Overview of Arizona and Federal Laws

To comprehend the gravity of a drug smuggling charge, it's crucial first to understand what constitutes drug smuggling. Under the Arizona Revised Statutes (ARS 13-3408), drug trafficking is defined as the knowing transportation for sale, import into this state, or offer to transport for sale or import into this state, sell, transfer or offer to sell or transfer a narcotic drug. Drug smuggling is similar to drug trafficking, but there is no intent to sell or distribute.


At a federal level, the United States Code (Title 21 USC § 953 & 960) defines drug smuggling as the importation of controlled substances, including illegal drugs or dangerous drugs, into the country. This includes situations where an individual knowingly or intentionally brings a controlled substance into the U.S. from outside the U.S.

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Unintentional Drug Smuggling: How Can It Happen?

Believe it or not, unintentional drug smuggling happens more often than you'd think.

  • 1

    Carrying Another Person’s Luggage

    You might be asked to carry a suitcase or bag for someone else, not knowing that it contains drugs. It seems like a favor, but it's a standard method used by drug traffickers to smuggle drugs without putting themselves at risk.

  • 2

    Transporting Mail or Packages

    Sometimes, you could unintentionally transport drugs if asked to deliver mail or a package for someone else. Unbeknownst to you, that 'package' might contain illegal drugs.

  • 3

    Buying a Vehicle That Contains Hidden Drugs

    Purchasing a used car can be fraught with problems, but what happens when the car comes with a secret stash of drugs? In some cases, individuals bought vehicles, and drugs were hidden in secret compartments.

Even though you might think these scenarios seem far-fetched, they can and do happen. What’s important to remember is that, regardless of the situation, the presence of illicit drugs can land you in serious legal trouble.

Consequences of Unintentional Drug Smuggling

Whether in Arizona or at the federal level, the consequences of unintentional drug smuggling are serious. According to ARS 13-3408, the transportation or import of narcotic drugs in Arizona is a class 2 felony. This can lead to imprisonment of up to 12.5 years for a first offense, with sentences longer for repeat offenders.


Federally, under Title 21 USC § 960, drug smuggling can lead to imprisonment ranging from 5 to 40 years, with fines of up to $5 million for individuals. The exact penalties can vary depending on the type and quantity of drugs involved and any prior convictions.


Remember that this is a simplified overview of potential penalties. A federal criminal defense attorney from the Kolsrud Law Office could provide a detailed analysis based on the specifics of a given case and guide you through this intricate legal terrain.

Innocence vs. Ignorance: How Unawareness Plays a Role in Drug Smuggling Cases

It's a common misperception that you can't be held legally responsible if you don't know about the drugs. Unfortunately, the law doesn't always see it that way. In many cases, ignorance doesn't necessarily absolve one from liability.


Under federal law, the doctrine of "willful blindness" or "conscious avoidance" can come into play. This legal principle suggests that a defendant can't escape conviction by deliberately avoiding confirmation of suspicions that would lead to knowledge of a fact, such as the presence of drugs. If it can be proven that you deliberately avoided learning about illicit drugs, it could potentially be just as damning as knowing about them.


This delicate legal ground is where an experienced federal criminal defense attorney from the Kolsrud Law Office can make a difference. The ability to effectively counter the concept of "willful blindness" could potentially make or break your defense.

unintentional drug smuggling

Building a Defense Strategy: Key Elements to Consider in Unintentional Drug Smuggling Cases

If you are charged with unintentional drug smuggling, the first step is to seek experienced legal counsel. Together, you'll need to build a robust defense strategy.


Several elements may play a crucial role in your defense:


  • Lack of Knowledge or Intent: As we discussed earlier, proving that you genuinely did not know about the drugs can be a viable defense. However, successfully arguing this requires evidence and a well-constructed argument.


  • Duress: If you were forced or coerced into transporting the drugs under threat of harm, you might be able to use duress as a defense. This is a complex argument to make and would require substantial supporting evidence.


  • Insufficient Evidence: The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime. If there's insufficient evidence to meet this high standard, your attorney may be able to argue for a dismissal of the charges.


While these potential defenses exist, it's important to remember that each case is unique. A federal criminal defense attorney from Kolsrud Law Office can help you understand your circumstances and choose the best defense strategy.

A Close Look at Case Precedents: How Prior Unintentional Drug Smuggling Cases Impact Your Situation

Case precedents, or past legal cases similar to yours, often play a significant role in the outcome of your situation. Understanding these precedents can provide strategic insight into your defense strategy.


United States v. Jewell is a landmark case crucial in the legal realm of drug smuggling, mainly because it helped define the doctrine of "willful blindness." This case involved a defendant illegally importing marijuana into the United States.


Here's a closer look at the case and its implications:

  • Case Summary

    The United States v. Jewell case, decided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1976, involved a defendant named Jewell, who was arrested at the Mexico-U.S. border with approximately 110 pounds of marijuana hidden in a secret compartment of his vehicle. Jewell argued that he was unaware of the drugs' presence, claiming that he only "suspected" there might be marijuana in the car.


  • Willful Blindness Doctrine

    The court rejected Jewell's defense. They introduced the doctrine of "willful blindness" (deliberate ignorance or conscious avoidance) into federal law, stating that deliberate ignorance and positive knowledge are equally culpable. According to the court, Jewell's claim that he merely suspected but did not know about the drugs did not absolve him of responsibility.


    The court argued that the defendant deliberately failed to investigate the possible presence of drugs. Thus, he couldn't be exonerated based on a technicality that he didn't "know" for sure there were drugs in the vehicle.


  • Implications for Drug Smuggling Cases

    The United States v. Jewell case set a precedent. It effectively lowered the bar for what the prosecution needed to prove regarding the defendant's knowledge in drug smuggling cases. The doctrine of willful blindness, as solidified in this case, implies that a defendant can't escape a charge by deliberately avoiding confirmation of the existence of illegal drugs.


    So, if someone "suspects" that they're carrying drugs but avoids finding out for sure, they could still be convicted for drug smuggling under federal law. This principle plays a significant role in many unintentional drug smuggling cases today, making it more challenging for defendants to claim a lack of knowledge as a defense.

  • How an Attorney Can Help

    Reviewing these precedents, among others, can help to understand the factors that courts have previously considered significant. A knowledgeable attorney from Kolsrud Law Office can guide you through these case precedents and leverage them for your defense.

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Next Steps After Being Charged: Actions to Take When Accused of Unintentional Drug Smuggling

If you ever find yourself accused of unintentional drug smuggling, it's important not to panic.


Instead, follow these steps:


  1. Remain Silent: Anything you say can be used against you in court. Therefore, exercising your right to remain silent is crucial, except for providing basic identification information.
  2. Consult an Attorney: Don't try to navigate the legal system alone. Seek out the services of an experienced federal criminal defense attorney, like those at the Kolsrud Law Office.
  3. Document Everything: Write down every detail you can remember about the situation leading up to and following your arrest. These details can prove crucial in your defense.
  4. Cooperate, But Protect Your Rights: While it's important to cooperate with law enforcement, you also need to protect your rights. Don't consent to searches or answer questions about the case without your attorney present.
  5. Prepare for the Legal Process: With your attorney, prepare for the stages of the criminal process, including arraignment, pretrial motions, potential plea negotiations, and possibly trial.
  6. Stay Positive and Proactive: Facing charges can be emotionally draining. Stay positive, follow your lawyer's advice, and be proactive about your defense.


The process might seem daunting but remember that you're not alone. A federal criminal defense attorney from the Kolsrud Law Office can guide you through each step, helping you navigate this complex journey.

The Importance of Experienced Legal Representation in Federal Cases

The accusation of unintentional drug smuggling is a severe charge requiring comprehensive and robust defense. Ignorance is not always a viable defense, and understanding the legal landscape, exploring various defense strategies, considering case precedents, and knowing the crucial next steps after being charged can make a significant difference in your case.


When faced with such charges, the help of an experienced federal criminal defense attorney, like those at the Kolsrud Law Office, is invaluable. They can provide much-needed guidance and representation, helping you navigate the complex drug smuggling laws and work towards the best possible outcome.

An award-winning criminal defense attorney Since 2006

Why Choose Josh Kolsrud

With over 100 trials to his name, and years of experience as a state and federal prosecutor, Josh understands the law, the legal process, and your rights. Josh is also committed to representing every client with utmost integrity and dedication



Josh has prosecuted major crimes on the state and federal level, led a successful anti-human sex trafficking operation that saved lives, and argued before countless juries and justices for his clients



Josh is an expert in both Arizona and federal criminal law, and is ready to put that expertise to work for you.



As a prosecutor, Josh saw far too many defendants lose their livelihood due to poor representation. Josh will always give every client his complete attention and effort

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