Virginia state laws are tough on drug crimes. In most instances in the Eastern District of Virginia (Norfolk, Richmond, Alexandria) federal courts are even tougher. In addition to reaching different results, the federal criminal justice system functions differently than the state system. I’ve heard clients who have experience with the state system comment that they "feel like they are on a different planet" when they encounter federal prosecution. Here are a few of the important distinctions between state and federal drug prosecutions.
When a person is convicted in state or federal court for distributing drugs, the judge bases the sentence imposed upon sentencing guidelines. State distribution sentences are usually not affected by the drugs involved in the case. Federal drug judges always increase sentences with higher drug quantities. Oddly, federal courts also consider drugs that the defendant is alleged to have possessed. Federal courts also impose higher sentences for crack than they do for powder cocaine. As a result, it's not uncommon for a person to receive 25 years of incarceration in a federal case for a crime that would have resulted in 5 year sentence in state court.
Drug charges in federal court are further complicated by the fact that federal prosecutors rarely (virtually never) promise to reduce jail time in exchange for plea agreement. In state court, prosecutors often agree a lower sentence if the defendant pleads guilty. Sentence reduction in federal drug crimes occurs after, if at all, the defendant goes to jail. Contrary to what some might expect, the prosecutor not the defendant is the only party that can ask for a post trial (rule 35) sentence reduction.
The federal system is geared toward guilty pleas. The most alarming indication of this fact is that, although presumed innocent, convicted federal defendants get a higher sentence if they plead not guilty. Also, while state courts have a wide range of sentencing options most federal drug crimes have mandatory minimum sentences that cannot be suspended.
As a result of these differences criminal defense lawyers have to know the "language" of the federal courts. I've been practicing in each of the Eastern District trial and federal courts since 1995. My experience tells me that often the most important time in a federal case is the first 72 hours after arrest. During that time and during sentencing a lawyer can best use his knowledge of the federal system to shave years off of his clients' sentences.