New Hanover County puts emphasis on moving drug trafficking, violent criminal cases into federal court

Federal system helps solve local crimes

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Days continue to pass with no updates on four recent shootings, including one that killed a 19-year-old woman. One major obstacle for investigators is that they’ve received little cooperation from the community.

Leaders with the district attorney’s office say the lack of people speaking out is something they’ve encountered before, but they have been involved in a program for years now in an effort to work around those challenges to enforce the law.

Ben David’s office has been aggressively taking local drug trafficking and violent crime cases and moving them from state court and into the federal case system.

“For violent criminals and career criminals we’re coming after you with everything we have whether it’s in the state system or the federal system," said DA Ben David.

The effort is a result of a partnership with local, state, and federal criminal justice leaders. US Attorney Robert Higdon agrees there’s been a renewed emphasis on federal prosecutions, and says his 44 county district has seen an increase across the board.

“We certainly have ramped up our prosecutions all across the district in the last two years. We’ve prosecuted a record numbers of defendants," said US Attorney Higdon.

New Hanover County’s program started more than two years ago when county commissioners agreed to fund the area’s first federal prosecutor specific to New Hanover County. Since then, it’s evolved into a team of four federal prosecutors. Wilmington and Raleigh are the only cities in the eastern district where there’s full-time, permanent federal prosecutors on the ground.

Local law enforcement agencies coordinate with the team of federal prosecutors to look at violent crime and drug trafficking cases and target career criminals. If the suspect they’re looking at is arrested by local officers for weapon or drug trafficking charges, the district attorney’s office simply has to pick up the phone and call one of the New Hanover County federal prosecutors to move the case over to the federal venue.

According to David, jail numbers show 13 percent of the population in New Hanover County is charged with federal offenses.

“At any given moment we will have 70-75 individuals in our local custody awaiting federal sentencing. These are the ones that frequently provide us information we need to solve cold cases, to solve those on the street where no one is talking. And, we are using that information to crack these cases that are causing the most violence in our community," said David.

In federal court there are tools that don’t exist in the state system, like the option for a federal investigative grand jury. In state court, only the law enforcement officers involved can argue their cases, but in federal court, a team of prosecutors is allowed to call witnesses and argue its case.

“So, you can put people under oath, get them to talk about what they know and if they don’t, there’s serious repercussions. We don’t have that ability to do that at the state level," said David.

Taking a case federal can also come with harsher sentences. Once someone is convicted, leaders can bring them back in and leverage a reduced sentence in exchange for information.

“I think the strategic targeting of people who are the drivers of crime rate—in putting them in federal prison for extended periods of time—is a proven technique that does drive down crime rates. It makes us all safer in our communities," said Higdon.

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