The short answer: It varies, but more likely than not, a long time.
Take for instance an operation finally shut down last month involving drug traffickers with Mexican cartel ties. The Star Telegram reported that federal, state, and local authorities investigated nearly five years before finally moving in on a ring distributing narcotics in North Texas.
Thirteen suspects were arrested after FBI agents raided a home just across the street from an elementary school in Grand Prairie and seized 380 grams of heroin, five kilograms of meth, and a shotgun. In conjunction with the same investigation, seven weapons and cocaine were being discovered and seized from two other locations in Dallas at the same time.
If the suspects are convicted, they stand to face 40 years in federal prison and a $5 million fine each.
Just five short months prior to that, in order to send a clear message to drug trafficking criminals in the North Texas area, a core of local, state, and federal law enforcement officials gathered for a press-conference to detail two large trafficking ring busts.
One operation lasted nearly two years, including a probe leading up to opening a 9-month investigation to uncover the operation’s kingpin, the numerous residences and 10-plus hotels the ring operated from, and the trafficking of more than 10 kilograms (22lbs+) of methamphetamine, and a kilogram (2lbs+) of heroin.
A federal indictment against 13 people alleged conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute meth and heroin, and if convicted, each defendant faces 20 years in fed prison and a $1 million fine.
In the other, 25 individuals were charged in a conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine across four North Texas cities. This resulted from a nearly four-year investigation into a drug trafficking enterprise conducted by federal, state, and local authorities that revealed a “fluid hierarchy” in which leadership changed when necessary.
In other words, when certain members were out of commission (say, because they were arrested on unrelated charges), others took over operations, and a portion of the profits from drug sales were regularly reinvested into more product.
This ring was found to have been operating between about September of 2014 and December 2017.
Why are drug trafficking investigations so lengthy? Because infiltrating a drug trafficking ring and identifying its members can be a complicated and time-consuming process.
There are many reasons for this.
Protocols Must Be Followed Carefully Every Step of The Way in Texas
We can start with every citizen’s Fourth Amendment right, which protects the right to privacy and freedom from arbitrary governmental intrusions (search and seizure). Furthermore, if a court determines an unreasonable search or seizure was conducted during an investigation, then any evidence obtained during the search cannot be used as direct evidence in court.
Although the Constitution does not specifically define probable cause, it usually depends on the totality of the circumstances – everything the arresting officers know or reasonable believe at the time the arrest is made. However, if a court deems there is a lack of probable cause, any evidence resulting from that arrest must be suppressed. Likewise, if a search or seizure is determined to have been illegal – no warrant, no probable cause – evidence may be thrown out.
There is so much on the line when investigating an alleged drug trafficking organization that law enforcement typically takes as much as is required to properly establish probable cause. Officials want to make sure that they can maintain any evidence gathered along the way to build the case for that much bigger of a bust.
Texas Trafficking Investigations Tend to Be a Bottom-Up Process
Beyond following proper protocols, the length of a drug trafficking investigation is often tied to where it begins. Generally speaking, you’re not going to see a drug trafficking ringleader walking around with their pockets stuffed full of money and drugs while brandishing a firearm.
This means that, most of the time, investigations begin with filing possession charges against the end user of the illicit drugs passed through the trafficking ring. So, when law enforcement must follow protocol to stay within citizens’ rights and they start from the bottom, it simply takes a lot of manhours for officials to work their way up the trafficking chain.
This is only the beginning. Other contributing factors to how long a given drug trafficking investigation may take include, but are not limited to:
- Quality of tips and leads. Every tip and lead that comes in receives follow up, from evaluation to potential follow through… but obviously not every tip and lead provides direction or insight. Either way, some amount of time is spent on investigating them.
- Building relationships and rapport. Those involved in illicit drugs from the bottom up are understandably wary of newcomers. It takes time to get close to important parties, and to build enough trust to be allowed in on important information needed to secure the proper evidence in cases as large as these can be.
- Physical geography of ring. Drug trafficking can span countries, states, counties, cities and – as the above cases show – multiple locations within a given city. When it comes to investigations, distance equals time.
- Number of physical bodies involved in the investigation. Whether it’s the number of suspects being tracked or the number of agencies coordinating efforts, the more people involved, the more time the investigation takes.
- Resources dedicated to the investigation. Typically, the cut of resources dedicated to the investigation and management of crimes involving drugs in a given law enforcement agency is significant. However, when investigations are taking place within smaller jurisdictions, they are likely performing them with less resources.
- Gathering enough evidence to support a final bust. Every other contributing factor involves gathering evidence to make that final bust. Any errors along the way are liable to aid in a given trafficking suspect’s defense strategy, setting back an investigation overall.
Ultimately, the primary mission of every collaborative drug trafficking investigation is to identify, disrupt, dismantle, and prosecute the most high-level members of illicit drug trafficking rings as possible, because the higher up in the trafficking chain the bust, the more likely law enforcement ends the trafficking crimes associated with the ring altogether.
Because of everything and everyone involved in taking down criminal enterprises such as this, the investigation process can easily take months, or even years.
What this means for you is that you should never assume you’re in the clear just because you haven’t been arrested or charged. If you believe that there is a possibility that you could be under investigation, the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to speak with a knowledgeable Texas criminal lawyer as soon as possible.
About the Author:
Brandon Fulgham has an in-depth understanding of both Texas law and Texans themselves. Before practicing law here, he received his undergraduate degree from TCU, and his law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston. After graduation, he worked in District Attorneys’ offices as a prosecutor, building cases designed to put people behind bars. Now, he uses that knowledge to protect the rights of people in and around Fort Worth, making sure they receive the strongest possible defense when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. He has been recognized for his work by The National Trial Lawyers, Fort Worth Magazine, and others.