In Utah, the penalties for a drug crime conviction are harsh. But when the offense is committed in a "drug-free" zone, the sanctions a court can impose can be even harsher. In some cases, the crime can be elevated to the next higher degree; in others, the alleged offender may have years added to their prison term and may not be eligible for a suspended sentence or probation.
What Areas Are Considered Drug-Free Zones in Utah?
Under Utah Code § 58-37-8(4), various locations are considered drug-free zone. For the most part, committing a controlled substance offense in or near these areas will lead to harsher punishments upon a conviction. However, a few exceptions exist, which we will discuss in more detail later.
Drug-free zones in Utah are as follows:
- In or on the grounds of public or private elementary or high schools between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.
- In or on the grounds of public or private vocational or postsecondary institutions between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.
- In or on the grounds of a preschool or child care facility during operating hours
- In a park, amusement park, arcade, or recreation center when open to the public
- In or on the grounds of a church, temple, synagogue, mosque, or other houses of worship
- In or on the grounds of a library when open to the public
- Correctional facilities
- Within 100 feet of any of the areas listed above
Drug-free zones do not only include physical locations. The law also provides that an alleged offender faces enhanced penalties when certain individuals are involved in the offense or nearby when it occurs. These individuals include people under 18 years of age and inmates.
Note that certain defenses are statutorily prohibited when a controlled substance offense is committed in a drug-free zone. The defendant cannot state that they believed that a person involved or near the offense was 18 years of age or older or they were unaware of their age. Nor can the defendant argue that they did not know that the area where the offense occurred was a drug-free zone.
What Happens When a Drug Crime Is Committed in a Drug-Free Zone?
The enhanced penalties a court can impose when a person is convicted of a specific controlled substance offense in a drug-free zone depends on the level of charge for the crime.
If the offense is a first-degree felony, which happens upon a second or subsequent conviction for specific drug crimes, the court may not suspend the sentence or place the defendant on probation. Additionally, the alleged offender must complete the entirety of their sentence. In the case of a first-degree felony, that could be anywhere from 5 years' to life imprisonment.
In cases where the offense was anything other than a first-degree felony, if it was committed in a drug-free zone, the charge is one degree more than the underlying crime. For instance, distributing a Schedule III controlled substance is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to 5 years' imprisonment. But say the distribution happened in an elementary school parking lot. In that situation, it becomes a second-degree felony, which carries a prison sentence of between 1 and 15 years.
When a drug crime happens on the grounds of a correctional facility or is committed to get a controlled substance to an inmate, the court may impose an additional sentence of 1 to 5 years. The additional sentence would run after the defendant has completed the prison term for the underlying crime.
Does the Drug-Free Zone Law Apply to All Drug Crimes?
Utah Code § 58-37-8(4) applies to only certain controlled substances offenses.
- Producing, manufacturing, dispensing, or possessing with intent to produce, manufacture, or dispense a controlled or counterfeit substance
- Distributing a controlled or counterfeit substance
- Possessing with intent to distribute a controlled or counterfeit substance
- Engaging in a criminal enterprise involving controlled or counterfeit substances
Thus, simple possession in a drug-free zone may not be subject to the special enhanced penalties.
Can You Fight a Drug Crime Charge?
If you have been accused of a controlled substance offense – whether or not it allegedly occurred in a drug-free zone – you have options to fight your charge. However, doing so requires the assistance of an attorney with experience challenging criminal accusations.