By Alexa Epitropoulos and Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Before the opioid epidemic reached a fever pitch in 2015, the Alexandria Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney was seeing early signs of a looming problem.
Bryan Porter, who began working in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office in 2001 and was elected commonwealth’s attorney in 2014, watched as drug cases transitioned from powder cocaine, crack cocaine and PCP in the early 2000s to heroin, prescription pain pills and fentanyl around 2012.
“I would say, while a decade ago those heroin cases took up 5 percent of our case load, they’re probably now 50 percent, if not a little bit more,” Porter said.
Since 2012, Porter has seen increases in the number of cases related to both prescription opioids and heroin. Porter’s observation is backed up by national statistics.
The number of heroin overdoses tripled from 2010 to 2014, while deaths from prescription opioid overdoses rose to 15,000 in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Almost 30,000 people died nationwide of opioid overdoses in 2014 alone, according to the CDC.
The rise in crime and deaths associated with opioid abuse has required nuanced thinking and approaches from both law enforcement and the court system. Both the Alexandria Police Department and the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney in recent years have changed their focus from individual users to those who are higher up the food chain, including dealers, suppliers and those leading drug trafficking pipelines.
“As a prosecutor, you really have to kind of separate out people who have an addiction problem [from] the people who are feeding that addiction,” Porter said.
Lieutenant Michael Kochis, commander of the Alexandria Police Department’s vice/narcotics unit, said the police’s approach is in that same vein.
“Our mission is to focus on drug trafficking organizations as opposed to individual users. What that means is when we come across a case, we try to identify the organization behind a specific source of narcotics, whether you’re talking about heroin or opiates or fentanyl or whatever it may be,” Kochis said. “Based on different investigative techniques we use, we try to get to that point.”
Porter and Kochis’ approach was on full display this week with the arrests of two New York natives who purportedly have roles in a larger drug trafficking network that transported drugs from New York City to the City of Alexandria.
Samuel Lebron, 38, and Jeffrey Montilla, 37, both of New York City, were issued indictments by the Northern Virginia multi-jurisdictional grand jury on Monday for charges that include the conspiracy to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine and conspiracy to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin. With this effort, city leaders believe they struck a fatal blow to a known trafficking network that funneled
drugs into the city over a number of years.
The arrests, made as a result of a two-year joint narcotics investigation by APD, the commonwealth attorney’s office and the Virginia Office of the Attorney General, are part of a larger local effort to target trafficking networks, which, when broken apart, have a ripple effect within the regional and national drug markets.
Kochis said police have been successful with targeting organized drug crime organizations under the federal racketeering code section. Even if the organization isn’t based in Alexandria, police and the commonwealth’s attorney have been able to pursue them if their web extends to the city.
“If your money touches Alexandria, if your drugs touch Alexandria or you touch Alexandria, it doesn’t matter where you live or reside — we can come and get you,” Kochis said.
The approach has adapted as the way drugs are sold has changed, Kochis said. In decades past, when mobile communication didn’t exist, more drug deals happened face-to-face and police had no choice but to crack down on those who sold drugs on the street.
“Back in the 80s, before I came on and before cell phones, there were a lot more open air drug markets where dealing would just be on the street, hand-to-hand transactions, stuff like that. Now, we still see that, but not as much. In the City of Alexandria, there’s still a strong street level narcotics presence, but it will primarily work off of cell phones,” Kochis said.
Though technology has changed, Kochis said some aspects of trying to make drug arrests haven’t. Police still work their way up from user to dealer to supplier, but the route to get to the end result has changed.
“Now we have all kinds of different forms of technology and resources that going after an individual user on the street isn’t as necessary as it was back then,” Kochis said. “There’s still a place for it, and I think that’s where I kind of see a void. With street level narcotics comes car break-ins and other types of quality of life crimes. But we focus on identifying drug trafficking and investigating them.”
When it comes to prosecuting drug-related crimes, Porter said the focus has also widened.
Considering the source
Porter’s office has also been working, in conjunction with the state attorney general’s office, to combat those who are part of drug trafficking networks.
Porter said there’s a separation between those who deal to afford their addiction and those who feed others’ addictions.
“You have people that are addicted, selling small amounts to keep their addiction alive so they can have money to buy, but you also have some very organized heroin distribution networks. We’ve been working with the attorney general’s office, focus[ing] on trying to attack the higher levels of drug distribution networks, while trying to show some compassion for people that are dealing with addiction,” Porter said.
Porter said those who are arrested with small amounts of drugs rarely serve extended time in jail.
“The reality of it is that people that are charged with simple possession really do not do much, if any, jail time. They never go to prison, in my experience, over the past couple of years,” Porter said.
Instead of working to put users behind bars, Porter said those in the justice system are emphasizing rehabilitation. Porter used the example of a 251 disposition, which allows those who have been charged with possession of heroin to work toward getting through the process without a black mark on his or her record.
“What we’re trying to focus on is treatment options,” Porter said. “For example, if you get charged with possession of heroin the first time, you don’t have any drug convictions on your record, there’s actually a state code that allows you to get through that process without a conviction on your record … They have to do probation, stay drugfree, do some community service, pay court costs.”
Porter said, through collaborating with multiple jurisdictions, the state attorney general and the Virginia State Police, they’ve also been able to go after – and, at times, effectively take down – complex and far-reaching drug trafficking networks.
“It’s kind of innovative. We’re attacking higher up … It’s like a pyramid. If you cut if off up here, you’re [taking] all the people down at the base [down at the same time],” Porter said. “So we’re really trying to do both – realize that people with addiction problems don’t really need lengthy jail sentences or prison sentences because they’re in the thralls really of what is a public health, mental health disease.”
Porter said users with crippling addictions are on a different plane than those who are fueling the growing opioid problem.
“On the other hand, people that are dealing, making huge amounts of money, illegal money off people’s addictions have to be dealt with sternly,” Porter said. “There’s a whole other level of violence that goes along with drug distribution networks because they’re making huge amounts of illegal cash. They can’t call the police department to protect them. You’ve got a lot of self-help with guns and violence, robberies, that kind of stuff going on. You’ve got both levels of it and we’re trying here in Alexandria to do both things.”
Porter, Kochis and others say there’s another potential innovative approach that could give certain opioid users a shot at rehabilitation.
Gene Rossi, a former prosecutor for the United States Justice Department who spent four years prosecuting organized crime drug enforcement task force cases in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, is in favor of second chances.
The retired prosecutor, who also ran for lieutenant governor before Justin Fairfax won the Democratic nomination in June, is on the board of Friends of Guest House, an Alexandria nonprofit that works to rehabilitate women who have served time in jail for nonviolent crimes.
He’s seen, firsthand, how the approach to prosecuting drug-related crimes has shifted over the years.
“I sense in the last couple years, especially in the last year, that America is now approaching the moment where we are taking an aggressive, but innovative approach to crime,” Rossi said.
“Fifteen, 20 years ago, most prosecutors would have paid little attention, if any, to the addiction of a defendant … Addiction was not part of the equation in the 80s and 90s for sentencing people. Now judges and prosecutors, especially defense attorneys, are realizing that if you don’t treat the addiction, which has caused, in part, their crimes, then they’re going to get out and they’re going to be criminals again.”
“… I now see among law enforcement, the DOJ and the state attorney generals that we have to take a different approach to this. We can’t just put people away and throw away the key,” Rossi said.
Many jurisdictions around the country have introduced drug courts as one possible solution to the growing problem of drug-related crime. Drug courts work to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders who have agreed to certain terms. As part of undergoing drug court, individuals participate in treatment while being monitored closely for the minimum term of one year. The program usually requires monthly visits to a judge, regular and random drug testing and sanctions if they do not meet obligations.
Several Northern Virginia jurisdictions have already established drug courts, including neighboring Arlington Circuit Court.
Kochis is one of the city officials leading the effort to bring a drug court to Alexandria. He and others are putting together a steering committee, which would include representatives from multiple organizations within city government, to explore the possibility. The steering committee would generate a drug court application that would, in turn, have to be approved by the state.
Kochis said if a drug court is instituted in Alexandria, it would be tailored
to the city’s needs.
“Each jurisdiction that has a drug court, they’re unique to that community’s needs, so we’re going to start small and kind of work out all the kinks in it,” Kochis said.
Porter said the hope is to begin the drug court sometime next year. He said, if resources are allocated for the court, it would be beneficial for users who might not have a pathway to rehabilitation otherwise.
“Heroin and most of these opiates are really, really difficult to get off of and most people need help,” Porter said. “A drug court requires buy-in from the person who is charged.
It’s not something where you force someone to do the program and because it’s so intensive they have to actually want to go through it.”
“The goal is not jail time. It’s to actually intervene and get this person off the street that’s causing the problem.”
As with most new programs, a drug court would take funding, staff and resources.
Funding, in fact, is the most significant reason why Alexandria does not yet have a drug court.
“It’s a very time-consuming and therefore resource-consuming process. It really boils down to funding,” Porter said. “… We have some reasonable goals to limit it to five to 10 people in the first year in an effort to see how much time and how much energy and how much money it consumes. The next step, now that we have buy-in from my office, is for the probation office and the police department to expand that net to other partners that we would need to be part of the process. Hopefully we’ll have an actual written proposal in something like the next 90 days.”
Kochis and Porter don’t believe a drug court in Alexandria would be a silver bullet but, rather, yet another resource to tackle a growing opioid problem that hasn’t shown signs of slowing.
“… I have seen a lot of success in the reports that I’ve looked at and I just think there’s an opportunity there,” Kochis said. “Again, we’re going to start small and make sure what we put together actually works. But I’m excited about it. I’m very optimistic. And it’s moving in the right direction.”
“It usually takes people a few years of struggling with it before they actually, really are committed to self-improvement, really getting out of that cycle,” Porter said. “It really has to be ‘I’m fed up with this, I can’t live like this anymore. I have to change my life. Once we reach that point, that’s when we see impressive gains.’”