Feds to handle more drug cases
People caught driving along Interstate 70 in Mesa County with large amounts of illegal drugs might be more likely to find themselves in federal court in the future, as the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Grand Junction moves to start adopting more trafficking cases from local law enforcement.
Acting U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer said that, thanks to a planned staff expansion, a new agreement with the Mesa County Jail and a solid working relationship with local law enforcement, his office’s Grand Junction branch is poised to start taking on more drug trafficking cases.
“Grand Junction is the highest profile location (in Colorado) for our interdiction cases,” Troyer said. “It’s a fact that we have recently adopted some more drug interdiction cases. … You’ll see an increase in us taking those kind of cases.”
Typically, people arrested on I-70 with large shipments of heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine and other drugs have been prosecuted by the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office, although many would qualify for federal prosecution, District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said.
Rubinstein said he’s lobbied for years to hand more highway drug cases over to federal prosecutors, considering that many smugglers and mules often appear to be heading from one major city to another and frequently have no ties to Colorado, let alone Grand Junction.
“I think it’s our responsibility to handle anything that is coming from Colorado or destined for Colorado, and I certainly don’t mind doing prosecution for the greater good,” Rubinstein said. “(But) these are bigger cases, they have federal implications, and they’re really not that time-intensive to prosecute.”
In one such recent case, Oscar Haros-Lopez, Manuel Moroyoqui and Juan Octavio Para-Espinoza were arrested in February after being found with three kilograms of heroin in a car while headed from Phoenix to Denver, according to James Jeffery, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent who testified at bond hearings for two of the three defendants last month.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Pete Hautzinger — currently the lone federal prosecutor based in Grand Junction full time — adopted the case and sought federal grand jury indictments for each. The three men appeared in Grand Junction’s federal court, and their cases remain ongoing.
While Troyer said Hautzinger has backup from other federal prosecutors around the state, the department is in the process of hiring a second Mesa County-based prosecutor who will “at least double” Hautzinger’s caseload capacity.
Troyer said the trend in Mesa County is not part of a larger movement toward more trafficking case adoption for federal prosecutors; rather, it’s part of an effort for his office to respond more nimbly to local problems. Federal prosecutors are currently playing a larger role in heroin and gang-related shootings in Pueblo, for example.
“What you’re seeing is a situational response to a community safety problem,” Troyer said.
Prosecutors on both the state and federal level see several practical reasons to try highway drug smuggling cases in federal court.
Drug smugglers frequently face high prison sentences, and when they’re convicted, the court they’re prosecuted in decides who foots the bill, according to Rubinstein.
The Colorado Department of Corrections estimates it costs about $37,958 per year to house an inmate. Parolees cost the state about $6,114 annually; community corrections inmates are $8,800 and probationers about $1,570, according to figures included in state sentencing reports.
Sentencing also differs for drug smugglers. Troyer said it’s “much better” to try trafficking cases in federal court because of higher mandatory minimum sentences and because non-violent offenders are eligible for parole from state prison after they’re considered to have served half their sentences.
Also, because of the way the Federal Bureau of Prisons is managed, inmates may be housed far from their families, another punitive measure.
Defense attorney Steve Laiche said state judges do tend to have more discretion for sentencing in high-level drug cases, but defendants in federal court are often in a worse position for negotiating a plea because federal prosecutors have easy access to far-reaching resources, like ongoing federal drug investigations where a local defendant might be tied to a larger criminal investigation.
That means more legwork for defense attorneys, Laiche said, giving an example of a local law enforcement agent making a traffic stop after apparently being alerted to the defendant’s presence in Mesa County by some federal investigator elsewhere in the U.S.
“It’s going to make things more complicated because you’re going to have to peel back these layers of the onion to find out sometimes the source of the information that led to this stop,” Laiche said.
Troyer said cooperation from Mesa County Sheriff Matt Lewis will help his department take on more drug traffickers. Lewis’ office on June 1 struck an agreement upping the number of federal inmates it will house in the county jail, according to Rubinstein.
In the past, the detention facility would only house 10 federal inmates, said Mesa County jail head and Sheriff’s Capt. Art Smith. Now the sheriff’s office has agreed to house an additional five inmates, as long as their criminal cases were either “adopted” from Rubinstein’s office by federal prosecutors or arrested locally into a federal case to begin with, Smith said.
The extra five beds can’t be used for federal inmates whose crimes don’t have a link to Mesa County.
“We look at it as if there are cases that would be charged here ... then we’re going to house and maintain those people for the duration until they get to a disposition of their case,” Smith said. “This is about us being a good partner with the (U.S. Marshal) service… and the assistant U.S. attorney’s office.”
Troyer said good relationships with local law enforcement agencies — helped along by Hautzinger, who preceded Rubinstein as Mesa County’s DA — will go a long way in shunting trafficking cases up to the federal level.
“The partnerships with people like Matt Lewis are just essential,” Troyer said, who said he wants to implement policies to “institutionalize” those types of relationships. “We couldn’t be doing any of this stuff without those guys working with us, … bringing something to the table like Matt did with the five extra beds in his jail.”