DA wants narcotics prosecutor
MAYVILLE — Seeing the same drug dealers appear in the news is an all-too-frustrating routine, and begs the question, what, if anything, can stop these criminals from returning to the streets?
For Patrick Swanson, Chautauqua County district attorney, an important part of the solution is hiring a narcotics prosecutor, an attorney solely devoted to prosecuting drug cases and — by improving the quality of such cases– inflicting harsher sentences.
The OBSERVER recently sat down with Swanson at his Mayville office to discuss his 2018 budget proposal, in which he listed the “aggressive prosecution of drug dealers” as his No. 1 priority for the year.
Specifically, he said, a narcotics prosecutor can be a “point person” for drug enforcement, someone who can provide constant legal oversight of drug cases, while also enhancing information-sharing between the county’s two drug task forces — the Jamestown Metro Drug Task Force and Southern Tier Regional Drug Task Force.
In addition, he said, since Chautauqua County has averaged nearly 200 felony drug arrests a year over the past five years, a narcotics prosecutor will be able to devote more time, energy and resources to each case, and help ease the burden on an already swamped and short-staffed D.A.’s office.
“If we get someone who day-in and day-out worked narcotics cases, you will see more consistent, more severe and more efficient results,” Swanson said. “Legal questions (regarding) search warrants come up regularly. Having a prosecutor who can assist (police) and ensure that a warrant is going to stand scrutiny in court makes the case better, which ultimately leads to a more severe penalty for the dealer — which is what we want.”
The request from Swanson is more a matter of urgency than convenience.
Since felony prosecutors in his office handle approximately 100-200 cases a year — double and sometimes triple the amount handled by Erie County prosecutors — the level of preparation and thoroughness devoted to each case, particularly those involving serious crimes, can be limited.
Moreover, compared to 12 other counties in New York state with the most comparable population sizes, Chautauqua County has the most town and village courts at 38, while having close to the fewest number of assistant district attorneys at nine.
As a result, prosecutors in the county are managing a larger caseload than prosecutors in neighboring communities.
“At some point, we’ve got to have more attorneys,” Swanson said. “There is nothing more demoralizing for my staff than those cases where they wish they had more time and resources because they really believed in a case. Sometimes we have to sacrifice those feelings out of sheer necessity to make sure we handle the volume of cases that come in here on a daily basis.”
Swanson’s request for a narcotics prosecutor is part of a larger, three-year plan to beef up the D.A.’s office with five additional attorneys, each with their own area of specialization: narcotics, child sex abuse, domestic violence, violent crimes and youth.
The rub, of course, is with funding.
A significant percentage of funding for the D.A.’s office comes from state grants and aid, as well as other outside sources. With these becoming less stable or just flatly cut, the prospects of adding a narcotics prosecutor — or any prosecutor, for that matter — remain uncertain.
P.J. Wendell, chairman of the county legislature’s public safety committee, was recently briefed on Swanson’s budget proposal and said it’s too early to say whether additional attorneys for the D.A.’s office is a guarantee, given the need for attorneys in other agencies.
“I totally understand where the D.A. is coming from, but there are so many things that are going to be facing us from a prosecution standpoint in the next couple of years,” said Wendell, pointing to the impact of the “Raise The Age” legislation regarding juvenile defendants and the need for more attorneys in the county attorney’s office. “I think we need to wait and see how everything pans out and then make our move.”
Wendell suggested if the D.A.’s office gets five additional attorneys, the public defender’s office would likely request additional manpower to handle the defense of these cases, a point reiterated by Nathaniel Barone, county public defender.
“We have been short-staffed for a very long time,” Barone said. “If the (D.A.’s office) is hiring additional attorneys … they may process more and more cases, which means that may very well increase our caseload even more.”
County Executive Vince Horrigan, as well as George Borrello and Mike Ferguson, Republican and Democratic candidates for county executive, respectively, have all supported the idea of a narcotics prosecutor, but Wendell said things get trickier when the “rubber meets the road.”
“Taxpayers will tell you they want criminals prosecuted and they want drugs off the streets, but they don’t want their taxes to go up,” Wendell said. “So between the Public Safety Committee, the Audit and Control (Committee) and the county executive, we need to come up with a budget that addresses the issue, but doesn’t break the back of the taxpayer.”
For Swanson, however, time is of the essence.
“At some point, the price tag is less important than what (the county) is getting,” he said. “Every position we have gained through grants or agreements has yielded results. So I’m not asking for a narcotics prosecutor just to have another body in the office. I’m asking for one because we have a very real problem.”