Can first time offenders get possession charges dropped according to UK law?

3rd August 2019 | Firearms & Drugs|
Nick Titchener headshot

Nick Titchener

Director & Solicitor Advocate

In Brief

Punishments for possession of drugs vary significantly, and are not necessarily lessened in the event of a first offence. Usually large quantities suggest an intent to supply, and charges are very unlikely to be dropped in this case. However, first-time possession of a small amount of cannabis, for example, may result only in a warning which does not go on a criminal record. In more serious cases, factors such as remorse, admission and lack of evidence of intent to supply can make charges more likely to be dropped.

Possession of joint

When you’re first charged with drug possession, it can be difficult to make sense of what the charges will actually mean and what may happen.

Penalties for possession range from minor warnings that won’t typically your affect day to day life such as employment, to lengthy prison sentences that will remain on your criminal record for life.

If you are charged with possessing drugs as a first offence, it’s important to ensure that you know what to expect from a possession charge. Expert legal advice and guidance from a specialist solicitor is always advisable when faced with a charge of possessing drugs as the wrong decisions at an early stage of an investigation or police enquiry can have long term consequences.

Mitigating circumstances

If you’re caught in possession of larger quantities of drugs that suggest you were intending to supply them to others, charges are unlikely to be dropped and the punishment will be more severe with the case heading to the court.

The consequences are more severe if it appears that you were actively involved in an organisation selling drugs, or if you were caught with drugs near a school or a prison.

In these types of circumstances, you may find yourself being accused of being concerned in the supply or distribution of controlled drugs. In these cases, the case will normally dealt with in the crown court and a custodial sentence will be considered

There are various factors that the police and courts take into account when they are dealing with first time offenders, some of which may include:

  1. Showing remorse
  2. Whether admissions have been made
  3. Possessing only a small amount of drugs for personal consumption
  4. Generally demonstrating a good character.

Cautions and discharges

If your first conviction for possessing drugs is for possessing a small quantity of any lower-class drug for personal use, your charge is not quite dropped, but you are likely to only receive a caution for the offence.

Cautions are entirely dealt with at a police station and don’t lead to any further punishment, apart from – rarely –  extra conditions like attending drug treatment. They are recorded on your criminal record and will normally show up on a DBS enquiry.

If your first conviction is more serious – perhaps because you were caught in possession of class A drugs – your case may be referred to the courts who will then consider a range of options, including whether the case could be dealt with by way of a fine or a discharge. This must be decided by a court and can either take the form of an absolute discharge or a conditional discharge.

An absolute discharge comes with no further punishment and is very rare in cases of drug possession. A conditional discharge means that if you are convicted for another crime within around 12-18 months, you will be sentenced for both the new offence and the one for which the discharge was originally imposed. All discharges appear on your criminal record and are classified as criminal convictions.

How is first time possession of cannabis classified in the UK?

It is important to remember that in the case of cannabis possession, the guidelines are more lenient. If your first offence is being caught with a small amount of cannabis for personal use, you may just receive a cannabis warning from a police officer. There is no further punishment and it doesn’t go onto your criminal record, although the police will keep a note of the offence in case you go on to offend again. The offence can also feature on an enhanced DBS enquiry.

If you’ve already received a cannabis warning and get caught in possession of the drug again, you may receive a Penalty Notice for Disorder (PND) from the police or you may be formally cautioned or charged and sent to court, depending on whether there are any aggravating factors and how much cannabis you are caught with. A PND is a one-off fine of £80 that increases to £120 if it is not paid within 21 days. If you are caught in possession of cannabis a third time, then you will receive a caution.

DBS check filter

It is worth knowing that a DBS check filter is eventually applied to most cautions, discharges and convictions for possessing drugs.

This means that if you are over 18, after six years any cautions for drug possession will not come up on a DBS check. It takes 11 years for convictions for drug possession to be filtered.

This doesn’t exactly mean that charges are dropped, as any warnings, cautions, discharges and convictions all stay on the police national computer (PNC).

If your employer asks you in an official capacity you always have to be honest about any drug possession charges.

What to do if you are accused of possessing drugs

While no drugs possession charge ever totally disappears, if it is your first time being caught with a small amount of drugs, there are very clear limits on how severe your punishment should be.

A first time offender caught in possession of illegal drugs should seek expert legal advice as soon as possible in order to ensure they do not get charged with anything more severe than a caution or a discharge. However, the effects of the caution can be significant in terms of travel and employment and it’s important to ensure that every avenue is explored. .

If you have any doubts about the severity of a punishment, contact the specialist team at Lawtons – we can give you the help and advice that you need, so just get in touch.

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