Drug Possession Laws in Rhode Island

This article reviews Rhode Island’s legal process, penalties, and what to do when you’re caught with a controlled substance in RI. Plus, a section on how drug courts and voluntary rehab can help.

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ARTICLE OVERVIEW: Been caught with an illegal drug in the state of Rhode Island?  We can help. This article reviews how Rhode Island handles drug possession charges and how a stay in rehab can be an alternative to harsher sentencing.


Laws and Definitions

The state of Rhode Island has very strict drug use and possession laws. You can find a list of drugs in Rhode Island’s Uniform Controlled Substance Act, Title 21, Chapter 21-28.  In fact, this law outlines common offenses and sentences. [1] For example, illegal drug possession is not only cocaine or heroin. It can also include prescription drugs that are not yours…or that you take in high amounts.

There are three different types of possession charges used in Rhode Island.  These include:

1. Possession of Drugs.

Usually, if you’re caught with a personal amount of a controlled substance, you’ll receive a simple possession charge. According to law, the drug must be found on your body: in your pocket, hand, or tucked inside your clothes.

2. Constructive Possession of Drugs.

When you’re caught with a personal amount of a controlled substance, but it’s not on your body, then you may receive a constructive possession charge. An example of this charge is if you’re driving and have a drug somewhere within the car. Or if you’re in a hotel room and a drug is found within your purchased room. The same concept applies in your home. There’s a lot more difficulty in charging someone with constructive possession as sometimes people are caught with a controlled substance but didn’t know they had it on them. If you are in that situation, you’ll want to speak to your lawyer.

3. Possession with Intent to Sell or Distribute.

It’s important to note that there are a number of different factors which determine whether or not someone is charged with possession with intent to sell. It’s not as simple as being caught mid-transaction, though, that case will result in a charge Rather, there are a number of different scenarios which could lead law enforcement to suspect you’re selling drugs. These include:

  • The amount of a controlled substance you have on you is more than common for personal use.
  • The amount of cash you have on you is notable.
  • The cycle of short term visitors to your home or workplace on a regular basis.
  • Possession of drug paraphernalia associated with sales and distribution like a a scale or little baggies.

Regardless of which possession scenario you find yourself in, all come with severe penalties if not defended properly. It’s important to contact a lawyer immediately upon receiving a drug possession charge.

The Legal Process in Rhode Island

Most drug distribution and abuse occur in and around urban areas in RI. In fact, the number of statewide drug-related arrests has remained relatively steady in the past decades. So, what can you expect if you find yourself under arrest?

The legal process for drug possession is fairly straight forward in Rhode Island. [2] You can expect to go through a few basic steps. The following happens upon arrest for drug possession.

1. Arraignment

After being charged by the Attorney’s general office, you will receive a notice in the mail which tells you the date and time you need to appear in court for your arraignment. This is when you’ll be given the chance to formally plea “not-guilty” and, from there, receive a pre-trial date.

2. Pre-trial Conference

During this pre-trial meeting, the prosecutors first present evidence against you. For most drug possession charges, evidence usually consists of the controlled substance itself and any paraphernalia law enforcement confiscated. However, the prosecutor may also present eyewitnesses who will speak during the trial.

There are instances where a case can be resolved through the pre-trial conference. However, when it comes to drug possession charges, this is unlikely considering how strict the law is surrounding these charges. In fact, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if you face several pre-trial conferences where no resolution is found. Instead, you’re given a date set for trial.

3. Trial

A trial occurs when the evidence discussed above is placed in front of a judge and/or jury. In Rhode Island, you may have a trial with a jury or solely with a judge. After the prosecutor presents his/her case, you will have the opportunity to defend yourself. Your defense will then be taken into consideration, either by the jury or judge and, from there, a guilty or not-guilty verdict will appear.

4. Sentencing

If the verdict is that you are guilty, then you’ll be given a sentence. This includes a number of different penalties which we discuss below. Most judges punish people on a case to case basis. Therefore, there’s no accurate way of telling what exact sentence you might receive.

Burden of Proof

Under Rhode Island law, it’s illegal for a prosecutor to convict you of a drug possession charge without demonstrating the following elements:

FIRST, LEGALITY. A prosecutor must present the evidence that you were in possession of a controlled substance when you were arrested.

SECOND, KNOWLEDGE. A prosecutor must present the evidence that you knew of the illegal nature of the controlled substance and you knew it was present at the time of your arrest.

THIRD, CONTROL. Finally, a prosecutor must present the evidence that you had control over both the presence and location of the controlled substance.

Sentencing and Statute of Limitations

It’s difficult to predict the outcome of sentencing, as judges in RI tend to decide on a case-by-case basis. There will be a number of factors which decide how you’re sentenced, including, but not limited to:

  • How much of the controlled substance you had on you
  • Whether or not you were also driving under the influence
  • Whether or not you were sharing or selling to a minor
  • The location of the activity on school grounds or not
  • Your previous criminal charges

People caught trafficking a drug can expect to face stronger penalties in comparison to those holding onto a personal amount. However, regardless of the amount, it’s almost always granted that you’ll face a felony charge for drug possession in Rhode Island…except for marijuana. Due to recent decriminalization in the state, a personal amount of cannabis will only result in a misdemeanor.

When it comes to Rhode Island’s Statute of Limitations, prosecutors have 10 years to present a case for a felony charge and 3 years to present a case for a misdemeanor [3].

Misdemeanor Possession

When you’re charged with a misdemeanor crime, the penalty is often less severe than that of a felony.

Common punishments for a drug possession misdemeanor in Rhode Island include a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 1 year of incarceration in either jail or prison.

However, it’s important to note, that MOST drug possession crimes in Rhode Island result in a felony charge. The only drug possession charge which results in a misdemeanor is marijuana. And if you’re caught with marijuana paraphernalia, you’ll be charged solely with a misdemeanor.

Felony Possession

In Rhode Island, most drug possession charges will result in a felony. Common punishments for these charges are as follows:

  • Prison for up to 3, 6, or 9 years.
  • Fines of $5,000, $10,000, or $15,000.

Penalties double or triple each time you’re caught with an illegal drug in the state. So, a first offense can get you jail time for up to 3 years and you can be fined upwards of $5,000. If you are caught a second time, then the penalties double. Upon a third offense, the consequences then triple to 9 years in prison and a fine of $15,000. However, if you’re caught with the intent to sell, it’s very likely you risk more severe penalties.

Other Penalties

Besides fines and prison time, a drug possession charge often comes with a handful of other penalties. There’s no guaranteed way to determine which of these penalties you face. In order to get a better sense, you’ll want to speak to a lawyer. Common penalties for drug possession in Rhode Island include:

  • Inability to obtain certain employment.
  • Inability to obtain certain types of government employment.
  • Inability to qualify for certain types of college scholarships or financial aid.
  • Inability to qualify for public housing.
  • Inability to receive a state license or certification.
  • Potential community service.
  • Potential enrollment in drug treatment programs.
  • Probation.
  • Suspension of your driver’s license.

Alternative Sentencing

If you’ve been convicted in the past for drug possession or if you have other charges on your record, it may be difficult to find alternative sentencing in the state of Rhode Island. However, if you’re a first-time non-violent offender, there are three options to look into. [4] [5] These include:

1. Adult Diversion Program

The purpose of adult diversion programs is to help criminal offenders rather than punishing them. This is done through drug treatment and mental health programs. You’ll also be expected to complete community service for nonprofit agencies and, if victims were involved in your crimes, payout restitution.

2. Deferred Sentence Agreements

This is defined as a sentence which is temporarily prevented until after you complete a period of probation. By fulfilling all the requirements of your probation, there’s a strong possibility your sentence and guilty plea will be cleared. Many people seek out deferred sentence agreements for the sake of avoiding jail time.

3. Drug Courts

This is a specialized court set up to treat rather than punish people for using drugs. The idea is that traditional forms of punishment do not work in cases of addiction or drug use problems. Instead, you’re offered a stay in a treatment centers. This gives you a chance to better yourself, both for your own benefit and the community’s benefit.

In most cases, when you successfully complete drug treatment and exhibit a change in behavior, charges are dropped. If you meet all requirements and expectations, after 12 months of review, not only are the charges dismissed in Rhode Island. But corresponding court records are sealed and expunged.

So, what do you need to do to get this kind of help?

First, you need to be referred to the Drug Court. Then, an assessment is conducted and you’ll be referred to a treatment center. At the facility, you’ll undergo some more interviews and assessments so that staff can develop an individual treatment plan. The Drug Court is in constant contact with the rehab to make sure you’re staying on course with the treatment plan.

So, there are still rules to follow. You will be treated as though you’re on probation. This means you’ll have to make consistent appearances to either a court or a supervising officer. You’ll also need to submit regular and random drug screens. In fact, during your time involved in Drug Court, you are subject to random weekly drug screens and are closely monitored through case reviews.

But the result can be a new life!

Interested in learning more? Please give us a call. We can talk through your options.

When to Contact a Lawyer

Q: When should you contact a lawyer for drug possession charges in RI?

A: Right when you are arrested.

Since your penalties aren’t decided immediately, you’ll have the opportunity to defend yourself. It’s in your best interest to have someone by your side who can not only offer legal advice but who can also defend you in the best way possible. To find an attorney in Rhode Island, look to the Rhode Island Bar Association [6]. You can also seek a referral from friends, family, or acquaintances.

What if you can’t afford a lawyer? Then you’ll want to see if you qualify for a public defender. If you receive a public defender, make sure you get as much advice as possible when it comes to defending yourself.

Your Questions

Have more questions about drug possession laws in Rhode Island?

Feel free to ask them in the comments below. If you have any more information you’d like to share pertaining to these laws or advice about Rhode Island’s legal system, we’d also love to hear from you. We try to reply to each comment in a prompt and personal manner.

Reference Sources: [1] Rhode Island Title 21 Food and Drugs Chapter 21-28
[2] Rhode Island Judiciary
[3] Rhode Island Title 12 Criminal Procedure Chapter 12-12
[4] State of Rhode Island – Adult Diversion Unit
[5] Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General: Adult Drug Courts
[6] Rhode Island Bar Association
Rhode Island Department of Health: Controlled Substances in Rhode Island

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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