One difference between an addict hooked on homegrown methamphetamine – or meth – and a person who abuses the more potent form of the drug called ice is the type of crimes they commit, Mobile’s top prosecutor says.

“Ice is so much more potent and powerful. I don’t know of any success story of someone getting off Ice once they become addicted,” said Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich.

Rich pointed to accused axe murderer Derrick Dearman as an example. “That was his drug of choice.”

Dearman, 27, of Leakesville, Mississippi, was indicted on May 3 by a Mobile County Grand Jury on six counts of capital murder for the five adults killed by firearm and/or axe at a secluded home in Citronelle on August 20, 2016 and death of the unborn baby carried by one of the adult female victims. He does not face drug charges.

Derrick Dearman man accused of murdering six people in Citronelle says “don’t do drugs”

“He (Dearman) was shooting up Ice. That’s no excuse to any crime but that was his drug of choice,” said Rich. “So, I can tell you we are seeing more violent crimes occurring under the influence of ice versus straight methamphetamine.”

From Meth to Ice

Ice, brought in to the Mobile area through a pipeline along the Interstate 10 corridor, and the home cooked methamphetamine version – or meth – as the drug causing headaches for local prosecutors for more than a decade. New sentencing guidelines and delays in getting forensic reports are among the obstacles district attorneys face in putting people in jail for possession or sale of meth.

Authorities in Mobile County have quietly reduced the number of methamphetamine labs, users and distributors in the area since the use of the drug spiked in 2006 and 2007.

Rich and Assistant District Attorney Lars Granade talked about the challenges the office faces in making sure offenders get stiff penalties. Granade supervises the Mobile District Court Assistant District Attorneys and prosecutes a lot of the cases.

He said the spike in meth cases from 2006 to 2008 stemmed from Mississippi passing a bill placing provisions on the sale of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine – the main ingredients used to produce meth.

“It almost doubled our case load for meth cases having to prosecute offenders from Mississippi coming into Alabama,” Granade said.

Rich said until law enforcement launched their own campaigns fighting meth in 2008 and Alabama legislators passed House Bill 363 which went into effect in 2012, Mississippi residents were crossing state lines to purchase pseudoephedrine and ephedrine.

“So, we basically put them back in their own state,” said Rich. “We saw the same thing in 2008, 2009 and 2010 which prompted us to launch our ZeroMeth campaign which helped until the provisions took effect.”

That campaign earned the Alabama District Attorney’s Association a National Silver ADDY Award in 2011 for ‘Best Public Service Announcement in the USA’.

“We are still distributing ZeroMeth materials in schools,” said Rich.

Since then, the amount of meth cases her office has seen have fluctuated from year to year.

The most recent figures in 2016 show the DA’s office handling 227 total cases involving possession, trafficking, distribution, or the manufacturing of a controlled substance. The total number of cases are broken down into three different distinctions.

Depending on the amount of meth or any other controlled substance an offender may be found with during an arrest can put them into four separate classes of felony offenses: Class A, Class B, Class C or a Class D.

The bulk of the cases fall into the possession of a controlled substance category, which typically means the offender had less than 8 grams of the controlled substance at the time of their arrest.

But, if you were arrested before January 30, 2016, which was when the mandatory sentencing guidelines took effect, prosecuting the cases can get tricky, according to Granade.

“Prior to that possession was considered a Class C felony which started with a 1 to 10-year jail sentence,” said Granade. “Now possession is a Class D felony.”

Most of the cases in 2016 stemmed from arrests that took place in 2015, according to Granade.

Offenders arrested after the sentencing guidelines went into effect, without any previous criminal history, can avoid a 1 to 5-year jail sentence for a Class D felony. Offenders are put on probation, if they make bond.

“That’s not us. I don’t think that’s correct, but the sentencing requires us fill out a worksheet and they do not get jail time,” said Rich. “They always get probation. So, our hands are pretty much tied on a Class D felony.”

If the offender is arrested a second time and charged with a Class D felony the same rules apply, according to Granade.

“We can fine them more but we can’t give them any jail time,” said Granade.

It is not until the third time an offender is charged with a Class D felony that prosecutors can push for a jail sentence. But, getting that conviction is still a lengthy process.

Prosecution obstacles

After being arrested, an offender is entitled to receive a bond, a preliminary hearing and having their cases sent to a grand jury, if needed.

Rich said inside of that process, prosecutors must obtain a toxicology report from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences on the controlled substance to prevent having the case thrown out.

“We find somebody with drugs we package it up and send it to forensic sciences,” said Rich. “They’re working on cases from a year ago. They test the older cases first and rightfully so. Until they get to that case we can’t indict it.”

If the case goes to a grand jury prosecutors prefer having the report, which will strengthen their case.

“It pushes the defendant to more than likely plead guilty,” said Rich “But even if they don’t when the judge sets it for trial we’re ready. If we don’t have the toxicology report and we have to keep resetting it then we’re in jeopardy of losing the case.”

Class C Felonies

Although their hands are slightly tied on prosecuting Class D felony cases, things change once the charges brought forward start in the Class C felony range.

If an offender is arrested with more than 8 grams of a controlled substance it falls into the Class C felony range, which is possession with intent to distribute. Prosecutors can push for a 1 to 10-year jail sentence in that instance.

An offender caught with more than 8 grams of a controlled substance, but less than an ounce is considered a Class B felony, which has a 2 to 20-year jail sentence if the case is upgraded to a Class B felony.

The most serious offenders, arrested with more than an ounce of a controlled substance, would fall into the Class A felony range. Prosecutors can push for a 10-years to life sentence in jail without the presiding judge having to consider the mandatory sentencing guidelines.

Granade said in that case, the federal authorities may get involved.

“It would have to be an amount significantly larger than just a couple of ounces of meth before the federal authorities get involved,” said Granade.

Class A felony cases usually involve the trafficking of a controlled substance. Rich said they have a working relationship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Mobile you can impose stiffer penalties.

 “A lot of our trafficking of meth we do send to the U.S. Attorney’s office,” said Rich. “Typically, if they will take the case we like to send the trafficking cases to them because they get more time.”

Federal prosecutions

Acting U.S. Attorney Steven Marshal said their office will look at the size or quantity of the trafficking of a controlled substance involved before they take on a case from the DA’s office.

“Meth cases are really no different than any other case,” said Marshal. “But there are questions as to whether there are extenuating circumstances. Is the drug trafficking being carried out with some kind of violence where there were guns involved?”

Marshal said the U.S. Attorney’s Office are estimating that 42 cases, that include 60 defendants, in south Alabama will be handled by their office once their fiscal year ends on September 30.

It represents a 48 percent increase of methamphetamine cases filed and a 71 percent increase in defendants when compared to 2016.

“In the last few years it’s been on the upswing again,” said Marshal. “We had a good bit of activity in 2006, 2007 and 2008 and for whatever reason they tapered off a little bit. But this year is going to be the most number meth cases that we have filed.”

He said in 2014 about a 25 percent of their drug cases were meth-related. In 2015 and 2016 it increased slightly to about 33 percent of the case load. In 2017, he said almost 50 percent of the 42 cases are meth-related.

“Our role in this process is to take the cases as they come in the door,” said Marshal. “And there are multiple defendants in these cases as well.”

But, as law enforcement, prosecutors and law makers shifted their strategies to combat meth in south Alabama, a new form of the drug has rose to prominence since 2014 called ‘Ice’.

A July 2015, intelligence report released by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency showed the connection of Mexican Drug Cartels in each U.S. state. The report linked the Sinaloa Cartel, Cartel Jalisico Nueva Generacion-Los Cuinis and the Beltran-Leyva Organization with drug trafficking ties in Mobile and Baldwin Counties.

Marshal said when they take on Ice trafficking cases they want to find out how the offender got the drug and how it made its way into the south Alabama region.

“Under the federal sentencing guidelines, they are higher sentences for Ice,” said Marshal. “But you’ve got to prove the purity of the substance. So, there are some prosecution burdens on us to be able to prove that through forensic analysis. These cases can be pretty involved.”

Rich said the factory produced version of methamphetamine is a more purer form of the drug. Since the base drug in Ice is still methamphetamine, and not sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the sentencing guidelines for the DA’s office remain the same.

Rich says going forward pushing for legislation to battle Ice would be a good way to help their initiatives combatting meth use to evolve.

“It would be great if we had legislation that would make stricter penalties for ice,” said Rich. “Because the addiction level to me is so much greater. But it’s got to happen at the legislative level. Until then we’re stuck with the laws we have.”

 

 

 

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