US attorney takes aim at crime, opioid crisis

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U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon of the Eastern District of North Carolina, introduces a new "Take Back North Carolina" initiative at the Pasquotank County Public Safety Building, Wednesday. Higdon, who took over as U.S. attorney in October, is flanked by area law enforcement officials.


By William F. West
Staff Writer

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Eastern North Carolina’s chief federal prosecutor issued a stern warning Wednesday to both violent offenders and those selling illegal drugs, particularly the opioids that have sparked a recent rise in overdoses: Stop your behavior or prepare to suffer the consequences.  

"We will not stand back and let crime rates and drug addiction continue to rise," U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon said. "We will not allow the progress made over the last two decades to slip through our fingers. We will not cede one block or one street corner to violent thugs or those that are peddling drugs."

Higdon, whose jurisdiction is the Eastern District of North Carolina, issued the warning during an hour-long news conference at the Pasquotank Public Safety Building held to tout his office’s new “Take Back North Carolina” initiative.

Flanked by area law enforcement officials, Higdon said his team of prosecutors is working with those officials to identify the worst crime offenders in communities. They are then moving aggressively to bring those offenders to justice and, where appropriate, getting federal judges to hand down stiff prison sentences, he said. 

"My goal is not to warehouse as many people as I can. I'm not interested in filling up the federal prison system with eastern North Carolinians," Higdon said. "My goal and the goal of every sheriff, every chief of police and every elected district attorney is to see the crime rate go down, to see drug overdose deaths dramatically reduced, to see fewer people who need to be prosecuted – and to see our communities safer, more secure and more comfortable for every citizen of eastern North Carolina."

Higdon, who took over as U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District in October, said his office is prepared to “take tough measures in order to achieve these goals,” and he asked citizens to join the effort.

Higdon noted that after declines in violent crime, the trend has reversed. He said that from 2014-16 crime rates had increased. At the same time, the U.S. is suffering the deadliest drug crisis in its history, he said.

Higdon said drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under age 50. In 2016, an estimated 64,000 Americans died from a drug overdose, which translates to one death every nine minutes. During the same time period, the State Bureau of investigation estimates three North Carolinians died every day as a result of drug overdoses, primarily as a result of abusing fentanyl-laced heroin.

"We have seen growing heroin use all across the district. We have seen even larger seizures of fentanyl that are beginning to occur in the district — and those around us continue to suffer and to die," he said.

With new directives from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prosecute drug traffickers and violent criminals more aggressively, Higdon said he is putting more emphasis on specific anti-crime programs and initiatives. He cited as examples the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, which is comprised of agents and prosecutors and targets the most serious drug trafficking organizations, and Project Safe Neighborhoods Program, which targets the worst violent offenders as well as those illegally possessing firearms.

Higdon also outlined steps his office has already taken to crack down on both drug traffickers and reduce violent crime. One is organizing teams of prosecutors to cover six geographic areas in the Eastern District. This ensures better contact with local law enforcement officials and better review of cases to see if federal court should be the prosecuting venue, he said. Higdon noted he’s already placed prosecutors in Greenville and Wilmington to make them more accessible to state and local law enforcement.

Higdon said his office has also ended “charge bargaining” in the eastern district. What that means, Higdon said, is that crime defendants will be charged with the most serious offense possible in their case. For example, if there's a firearm charge that can be attached to an underlying substantial crime, a defendant will face that charge.

What that means, he said, is that if a defendant is found to have carried a gun to an illegal drug deal, prosecutors will push to have an additional five-year sentence added to their drug sentence.

In another change in procedure, federal prosecutors are requiring defendants who want to admit guilt in federal cases to plead to the most serious readily provable offense. Prosecutors have also imposed a 14-day plea deadline in every case to ensure it moves quickly to either a plea agreement or a trial — preventing law enforcement officers from having to waste time preparing for trials that aren't necessary.

What this means, Higdon said, is that once the two-week deadline passes, prosecutors won’t negotiate or strike agreements with defendants and their attorneys.

"If they miss the deadline, they are for trial – and they will face the maximum penalties that are available at the conclusion of a trial," he said.

Higdon has also assigned a team of civil court attorneys to pursue the property of drug dealers and violent criminals, as way to deny them the profits they seek.

"If your crime generates cash, we will seize it," he said. "If your fancy car was bought with drug money, we will take it. If your house or business facilitated the drug crime, we will moved to forfeit it."

Higdon also said civil court attorneys will be working with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to strip the medical licenses of medical providers who over-prescribe or illegally prescribe prescription drugs.

Chowan County Sheriff Dwayne Goodwin was among the many area law enforcement officials on hand for Higdon’s presentation. He said afterward he hopes Higdon’s get-tough approach gives local law enforcement the reinforcement.

"What I hope this means to me is that now we will have teeth" in enforcing laws, he said.

He recalled how his office once enjoyed a great relationship with the U.S. Attorney's Office, but that "national politics kind of changed that."

District Attorney Andrew Womble said his office plans to work closely with the U.S. Attorney's Office, turning over cases to federal prosecutors he believes should be prosecuted in federal court.

Womble also said his office intends to respond more aggressively to the opioid crisis. Noting there have been five drug overdoses in Dare County — three resulting in death — in recent weeks, Womble said he plans to prosecute fatal overdose cases as homicides.

Womble’s office in fact recently charged a Currituck County man, accused of being a heroin supplier, with second-degree murder following the death of a man in Wanchese.

"I am interested in the people who are peddling poison in our district, in our communities — and those people need to go to prison. And through this collaborative effort, that's what we're trying to do," he said.

Elizabeth City police Chief Eddie Buffaloe said that in his 30 years in law enforcement, he’s never seen an illegal drug problem as severe as the one caused by the opioid "epidemic."

"Drugs and relevant violent crimes are affecting our neighbors, our friends — in some cases our own families — and are most concerning to our children and our youth within our public schools," he said.

Pasquotank Sheriff Randy Cartwright said his department has long had a great working relationship with federal authorities. He said he welcomes the additional help from Higdon’s office, particularly as his office tries to gain traction against the growing opioid crisis.

"We've got to work together to put a stop and turn this thing back around," he said. "It's killing people of all ages, all races, all types of people from all different societies. It's not the rich. It's not the poor. It's everybody. It's affecting everybody's family.”