Federal drug conspiracies seem to be the most frequently prosecuted case by the United States Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of Wisconsin. If you have been indicted, or suspect that you may be under investigation, it is critical to secure legal representation.

Upon being indicted, a person will have to make very difficult decisions, in a relatively short period of time. The mandatory minimum penalties on federal drug cases can be tremendous. Until very recently, even simple possession of crack cocaine (5 grams) resulted in a 5 year mandatory minimum prison sentence. 50 grams (about 2 ounces) resulted in 10 years. Again, this was a mandatory minimum, meaning the judge couldn't go below, no matter how sympathetic your case may have been.

The reason why I say "difficult decisions" have to be made, is primarily because of these penalties. Given the drug weight typically alleged in "conspiracies" it is almost certain that you will face mandatory minimum penalties upon being indicted. There are four ways to avoid those penalties - secure a reduction through the U.S. Attorney's Office, beat the case (either through motions or trial), secure a "safety valve" reduction, or cooperate.

A safety valve reduction is a statutory creation which allows the court to sentence below a mandatory minimum when a person meets certain criteria. For example, the defendant has to be in criminal history category I, which essentially means you either need to have no record or a very dated record. Second, there can be no violence. Third, the defendant cannot be a leader or organizer within the conspiracy. Finally, the defendant needs to "debrief" or talk to the government about his or her involvement and the role of others within the conspiracy.

To "cooperate" means exactly that. A cooperating defendant is giving information on other individuals in an effort to secure a reduction in his or her own case. This is also something that needs to be discussed, explored and considered.

There can be downsides to any of these approaches. By securing legal representation at the outset (preferably pre-indictment), the individual can at least gain a better sense of what the options are in a given case. The penalties in federal court can be much more extreme than those faced in state court, so it is critical to spend the time to learn what you are facing in your situation. Also, because federal judges still consult "sentencing guidelines" prior to imposing sentence, it is imperative that you gain a sense of how those guidelines might affect the conspiracy charge.