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What Is a “Drug-Free Zone” and How Could It Affect My Criminal Case?

When it comes to drug crimes in Texas, where the offense occurs can matter a great deal. It is always illegal to possess certain drugs like cocaine. But if you are arrested for possession of cocaine in an area near a school, your sentenced may be enhanced under what is known as the “drug-free zone” law.

Court Upholds 20-Year Sentence for Defendant Charged with Cocaine Possession Near Playground

Under Section 481.134© of the Texas Health and Safety Code, a drug-free zone is any location “in, on, or within 1,000 feet of premises owned, rented, or leased by an institution of higher learning, the premises of a public or private youth center, or a playground,” or “on a school bus.” If a person commits a drug possession offense within a drug-free zone, the minimum jail term is increased by five years. For example, if you are convicted of possessing between 1 and 4 grams of cocaine, that is normally a third-degree felony under Texas law, which carries a minimum jail term of 2 years (and a maximum of 10 years). But if the court finds the defendant guilty of possessing the same amounts of cocaine in a drug-free zone, the minimum jail term increases to 7 years.

Of course, this is simply a minimum. In one recent drug case, Graves v. State, a defendant convicted of cocaine possession received a 20-year sentence, based not only on a drug-free zone enhancement but also his prior criminal record. On appeal, the defendant specifically challenged the drug-free zone finding. At trial, the prosecution argued the defendant was within 1,000 feet of a “playground” at the time of his arrest, which falls within the definition of a drug-free zone. But the defendant maintained there was insufficient evidence produced at trial to prove the location in question qualified as a “playground,” which requires the presence of at least three “play stations intended for the recreation of children, such as slides, swing sets, and teeterboards.”

The Texas 14th District Court of Appeals rejected this claim. The Court cited the testimony of a police investigator, who provided a general description of the location as including “[n]umerous slides—slides, monkey bars, swing set, [and] baseball fields.” It was not necessary for the prosecution to show the jury actual photographs of the park to confirm it was a playground.

The appeals court further rejected the defendant’s claim of insufficient proof that he was within 1,000 feet of the playground at the time of his arrest. Here, again, the Court cited the testimony of police investigators, who used both Google Earth and a traffic wheel to estimate the defendant’s distance from the park at “300 to 400 feet.”

Speak with a Houston Drug Crimes Defense Lawyer Today

It may seem unfair that you can be charged with an elevated drug crime based merely on where the police happen to stop you. But that is the law in Texas. If you are charged with a drug crime and need legal assistance from a qualified Houston criminal defense attorney, call the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Galveston or League City today at (281) 280-0100 or send us an online message.