What Factors Influence Sentencing in Drug Offenses in Arizona?

Arizona’s drug sentencing laws are a complicated web of mandatory minimums, guidelines, and judicial discretion.  Two people convicted of the same drug offenses can get very different sentences depending on a variety of factors, including:

  • Is the convicted person a repeat offender?
  • What type of drug was it?
  • How much of the drug was involved?
  • Were the drugs intended for sale?

Based on how these factors play out, the court can impose sentences ranging from pre-conviction diversion programs to fines to 20 years or more in prison.

Sentencing In General

In Arizona, a crime is a felony if it can be punished by a year or more in prison.  The State of Arizona divides crimes into five classes of felonies, which are named Class 2 through Class 6.  Each class has five potential sentences:

  1. a “mitigated” sentence, which is actually shorter than the “minimum” sentence, and is available if at least two ‘mitigating’ factors were involved (see below);
  2. a “minimum” sentence; available if at least one mitigating factor is proven;
  3. a “presumptive” sentence, which is the ‘normal’ sentence for the crime;
  4. a “maximum” sentence; available if at least one ‘aggravating’ factor is shown; and
  5. an “aggravated” sentence, for crimes involving at least two aggravating factors.

First Offense or Repeat Offender?

The law treats people differently when they have never been convicted for drug offenses before.  One option for first-time offenders might be drug court, where the prosecutor will agree to drop the case if you successfully complete a drug rehabilitation program.  On the other hand, in some cases where a person has made a career of selling drugs, the court can sentence him or her to life in prison.

Amount and Intention

Arizona Courts also consider the amount of the drug that was involved, and whether it was intended for sale when imposing sentences.  For example, a first-time offender convicted of possessing less than two pounds of marijuana not for sale could receive as little as four months, while the same first-time offender convicted of possessing four pounds or more would be facing a year in prison at the minimum (the “mitigated” sentence).  If the first-time offender had less than two pounds they had planned to sell, the mitigated sentence would be one year; if they had the four pounds or more for sale, the mitigated sentence is no less than three years in prison.

Type of Drug

Arizona also imposes harsher penalties for some drugs than others.  “Dangerous drugs,” which includes substances such as cocaine, heroin, and prescription medications, receive more severe sentences than marijuana.  Generally a person charged with possession of a dangerous drug would be faced with a Class 4 felony, which carries a mitigated sentence of 1 year in prison (as opposed to possession of marijuana, which is a Class 6 felony with a mitigated sentence of 4 months).

What factors can be considered for reducing a sentence?

The judge is required to consider six “mitigating” factors when imposing a sentence:

  1. The person’s age
  2. Whether the person recognizes what they did was wrong, and/or had a harder time obeying the law than most people; this can include issues like addiction
  3. Whether there were unusual circumstances putting pressure on the person who was convicted
  4. Whether the person only played a small part in the crime
  5. If the crime involved a car accident, whether the defendant stayed at the scene of the accident, submitted to a drug or alcohol screening, and otherwise did what the law requires after an accident
  6. Anything else about the person, his or her background, or the nature of the crime that the judge thinks is relevant.

What factors can be considered for increasing a sentence?

On the other hand, the court can also add time to a sentence if the crime involves certain “aggravating” factors that the State of Arizona has decided make the crime worse.  These can include whether:

  • the crime was committed near a school;
  • any children were involved;
  • the crime was gang-related; and
  • the crime was committed while the person was out on parole.

Clearly sentencing in Arizona drug cases can be complicated.  If you’re concerned you may become involved in a criminal case and would like to speak with an attorney, call us today to schedule a free legal consultation.