Commonwealth’s Attorney Testified to Judiciary Committee on Opioids

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By Linda Cicoira“The inherently dangerous nature of these (opioid) drugs and the threat to public safety are significant” in Accomack County, Commonwealth’s Attorney Spencer Morgan told a U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary last May. He said the focus of prosecution is on the dealer.

Morgan also told of Subutex, the medication used to treat addiction, and that its abuse “was one of the first indicators that widespread opioid abuse had taken root” locally.

This week, a civil suit forged by the county has accused drug companies of being responsible for the crisis and a total of $58.6 million is being sought for compensation and punishment. 

The county attorney and administrator have declined to comment on the budgetary aspects of the crisis and what the county would do if it won such a sum. Also unavailable is how much of a win or settlement would be distributed among the lawyers who are handling the case. In other jurisdictions, they reportedly would get a third of the share.

The Eastern Shore Post came across Morgan’s comments, which show the issue from a different angle.

“The addictive properties of these substances are so powerful that we must continue to couple the criminal justice process with treatment and see new opportunities for cooperation between two disciplines, law enforcement and treatment providers, which have traditionally been at odds,” he continued. “I would say that second only to a crime victim’s appreciation, I have no better professional satisfaction than when I encounter an addict in recovery who thanks me for helping them on a path to recovery through the discharge of my duty as a prosecutor.”

He is hopeful that “Accomack County will continue to meet the challenges presented by opioid abuse head-on.” 

When Morgan came to the Shore in 2011, he said, “Opioids and heroin had yet to make a substantial impact in the county. Arrests were generally low and while abuse of prescription medications was present, the extent of the problem had yet to be revealed.” At the same time, a prosecutor from across the state told him “heroin abuse had become one of the biggest problems facing his jurisdiction and described a pattern where addicts … would commit property crimes in the morning, drive to Baltimore, purchase heroin, return to use what they had purchased, only to repeat the cycle day after day.” Morgan said he soon learned that in nearby Worcester County, Md., the problems were similar.

Then local police began encountering addicts trading Subutex for more potent narcotics, Morgan testified. “On several occasions, the Accomack County Sheriff’s Office has disrupted sophisticated schemes to introduce these substances into the Accomack County Jail.” 

Morgan said drug task force agents learned dealers in northern Accomack began giving addicts free bags of heroin to “coax the user to return to them when they wanted more of the drug” and women tried to bring Bibles stuffed with drugs into the jail.

He talked about the challenges of trying to help the addict, protecting police and first responders from being hurt by coming in contact with the drugs, and the delays because of the increase in lab testing because “some opioids are disguised to look like legitimate medications.”

Morgan said in one of his early heroin distribution cases there was evidence that an infant was present when the sale was going on. He’s also heard an officer talk about a mother who died while cleaning her son’s room after finding him overdosing and taking him to the hospital.

“We have users who are committing crimes in Accomack and traveling to Maryland or Delaware to purchase heroin,” he said. “We are also seeing users from those areas coming to Accomack to commit crimes such as larceny or burglary to fund the purchase of drugs in their own area … Some of our smaller law enforcement departments with fewer than 10 sworn officers find themselves responding to what are, in effect, homicide scenes and investigating them like accidental deaths. It did not take long to realize that investigations into these deaths were falling short of the attention needed.”

Naloxone, an injection given for overdoses, is now carried by officers “saving at least one life in Accomack County and the life of a Drug Task Force officer trained through the program in a locality across the Chesapeake Bay when opioid-based narcotics became airborne and were inhaled by the officer’s partner.” 

The officers also carry a pamphlet of local resources to give to those seeking help with substance abuse. “As a prosecutor, the resource guide is helpful because the information can be shared with victims and witnesses struggling with substance abuse and increase the odds that person will be available for court,” Morgan said.

He compiled criminal cases handled between 2016 and 2017 and found “nearly half of the individuals prosecuted for simple possession of a Schedule I or II narcotics were facing additional criminal charges … and the number of distribution charges was almost double that of the simple possession cases,” Morgan said. “I believe these numbers demonstrate that our local law enforcement officers are focusing their efforts on pursuing distributors and solving crimes, as opposed to targeting addicts.” 

First offenders charged with possession are often given a chance to avoid a felony. They are required to have a substance abuse assessment, treatment, remain drug free, and perform 100 hours of community service with monitoring by the department of probation and parole. After a year the charge is dismissed.

“Our office and the probation officers recognize that relapse is a component of addiction recovery,” Morgan continued. “Within the Department of Probation is a system of graduated sanctions which are imposed if a substance abuse related violation is discovered while the probationer is on supervision. However, multiple violations result in requests for action from our office. Once that request is made, a show cause or a capias is issued and the probationer is brought back before the court for judicial sanctions. In my experience, the success rate of individuals in either of these scenarios, first offender or probation, is much higher for users of cocaine than opioids.”

After that, other residential programs are offered. Defendants on opioids are also sometimes taken into custody to protect them and others.