Higdon, who is the United States attorney for the federal Eastern District of North Carolina, spoke at the Ahoskie Police Department about the initiative which not only addresses violent crime and drug trafficking, but targets medical professionals who illegally prescribe prescription drugs.
The renewed effort to push the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force and Project Safe Neighborhoods program comes at a time when trends in violent crimes rates spiked between 2014 and 2016 after what had been a steady decline across the country.
A prosecutor for 25 years, Higdon said, “For much of that time we saw a steady decline across the country. We saw that decline in my judgment because law enforcement at every level banded together to target our most serious offenders. We identified them, we investigated them, we arrested them and we prosecuted them and we removed them from the communities they victimized.”
Reversal of trends
In recent years, however, trends reversed from 2014 to 2016 and the violent crime rate across the country increased by nearly 7 percent. Robberies went up, assaults went up by nearly 10 percent, rape went up by nearly 11 percent and the murder rate shot up by more than 20 percent.
Then there is the drug crisis, the deadliest in the country’s history, he said. “More Americans are dying because of drugs than ever before. In 2016 an estimated 64,000 americans died of drug overdose. That’s one every nine minutes. In 2017 the death toll was even higher.”
In North Carolina the State Bureau of Investigation estimated during the same period three North Carolinians died per day from drug overdose. “Many of those deaths were the result of fentanyl and heroin,” Higdon said. “For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdose is now the leading cause of death and millions of Americans are living daily with the struggle of addiction.”
Eastern North Carolina is not immune, he said. “The unintentional opioid related death rate for Eastern North Carolina is higher than that of the rest of the state. Our own people, friends, neighbors, colleagues across this district have been victimized by violent crime, lost their lives to drug addiction and drug overdose and many suffer with drug addiction. We’ve seen growing heroin use all across the district. We have seen ever larger seizures of fentanyl and those around us continue to suffer and die.”
With directives from the president and feedback from law enforcement, the attorney said, “We will not stand back and let crime rates and drug addiction continue to rise. We will not allow the progress made over the last two decades to slip through our fingers.”
The effort is one of not only law enforcement and prosecutors, he said, but those in victim services and faith-based and charitable organizations “to attack the rising crime rate and the drug overdose death crisis.”
The effort, he said, includes targeting doctors and pharmacists who over-prescribe and illegally distribute prescription drugs. “We are prepared to work on this problem until every community, every neighborhood, every street, every home is safe and secure, free from the worry of violent crime and drugs.”
The work is underway, he said. “We have been reassigning our resources, working cooperatively with our law enforcement partners and harboring the worst offenders for weeks now.”
Task force, Project Safe Neighborhoods
For more than 30 years, the federal government used OCDEFT, a congressionally funded group of prosecutors and agents working across the district.
Their objective was to identify and target the most serious drug trafficking organizations in the district.
In recent years, less emphasis was placed on it and caseloads fell dramatically, Higdon said.
“Investigative agencies were left with no choice but to pursue prosecution of these individuals through the state court.”
Higdon has now appointed new leaders to the program “by assigning an aggressive attorney with exceptional legal skills and who is one of the best strategic thinkers that I know and is known by every drug agent across the district to lead our effort. He has been empowered with full authority to run the program and he has been commanded to return the Eastern District’s program to the leadership position it occupied in recent years.”
Project Safe Neighborhoods had been an effective program, he said. “We have directed the reorganization of the Project Safe Neighborhoods program and we have fully staffed it with aggressive and skilled prosecutors who can take on these violent criminals, those who aren’t entitled to possess firearms and those who victimize our citizens and local businesses.”
These resources will be dedicated to strategically targeting people who are the worst offenders in each community and prosecute them in federal court. “I have ordered the assignment of teams of prosecutors in our office starting with the attorneys within our drug and Project Safe Neighborhoods programs to six geographic areas. The assignment of these prosecutors will ensure we cover the district in a methodical way so that law enforcement in each community will have a point of contact in my office to ensure that cases are reviewed and accepted for federal prosecution as rapidly and efficiently as possible. It will provide law enforcement with access to solid legal advice on the federal level to maximize our chances for success before the federal courts.”
Higdon said lawyers have been placed in Greenville and Wilmington so they are accessible to federal, state and local law enforcement. “I have delegated case intake authority consistent with policies and procedures of the justice department to these prosecution teams so there is no bureaucratic or supervisory delay. When the assisting United States attorneys meet with federal, state and local law enforcement they will have the ability to clear matters for prosecution.”
Higdon said the assignment of prosecutors geographically will allow the office to identify serious offenders by name. “We’re going to know who they are we’re going to sit down with local law enforcement because they know who they are. We’re going to work to understand how they operate. We’re going to work with law enforcement to attack and to hold law enforcement and our prosecutors accountable for moving these offenders and driving down our crime rates.”
The efforts are also tied to the opioid crisis, he said. “Many of these cases where a user dies can be charged in either state or federal court.”
Under perfect circumstances, he said, “We will bring these matters to the federal court and often times we can take advantage of a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence where death was the result of the use of the drug charges.”
Taking back North Carolina
Higdon said his office plans to identify “the worst offenders in communities across the Eastern District and we will move aggressively against then and bring them to justice in federal court.”
The Eastern District has embraced directives of the United States Attorney General’s Office on handling these cases. “In recent years federal prosecutors all across the country laid down some of their most important weapons against violent and drug related crimes. We have picked those weapons up again and we are using them consistently in federal court in this district.”
This effort is now leading to a tougher stance on plea bargaining, requiring offenders to plea to the most serious charge. If a weapon is involved there will be gun charges.
For instance, there will be an additional five-year sentence for bringing a weapon to a crime or drug deal; an additional seven years if a weapon is brandished and 10 years added if a weapon is discharged. In federal court, he said, there is no parole, no exceptions. “We’re requiring offenders who want to plead guilty to plead to the most serious charge. These types of agreements assure that the punishment fits the crime and there is consistency in how we treat them.”
Higdon said he has further imposed what he described as a firm 14-day plea bargain deadline which no assisting United States attorney can waive “to ensure we move cases quickly to plea or trial.”
Once the deadline passes there will be no negotiations.
The new initiative also addresses crimes which target law enforcement. “The president and the attorney general have also made it clear that any crime which targets law enforcement officers in any way is to get priority attention from my office if we can get jurisdiction over the event.”
For criminals to avoid lengthy sentences, Higdon said, they must cooperate with investigators. “We will encourage that cooperation so long as it is offered quickly and timely. Offer that cooperation early and truthfully and we will reward you under the law. Wait or refuse to cooperate and we will pursue those long sentences.”
Civil attorneys have been assigned for asset forfeiture and they will be working with the Drug Enforcement Administration to target medical professionals who illegally prescribe prescription medication or who illegally distribute it.
They will, the attorney said, be treated “as the drug dealers they are, denying them, among other things, their license to prescribe drugs.”
The end goal is not to fill federal prisons, Higdon said, but with law enforcement and prosecutors, “to see the crime go down and see the amount of drug overdose deaths dramatically reduced to see our communities safer and more secure.
“We are willing to take these tough measures in order to achieve the goals and are willing to do this hard work to take back North Carolina.”