Behind Bars, Navigating The System
Courier Special Series: The Truth About Drugs In Valley County
This is Part 3 of a series of articles focusing on educating the community about drug use in Valley County.
Falling in with the wrong crowd and getting involved with illegal activities might have some rewards, or so it may seem to some involved. Many of those rewards are temporary. When law enforcement gets that important tip on an investigation, they might be looking for more than just an immediate arrest.
When Ron Kemp worked on the drug task force and helped work with informants, he said they were looking for more than just a bust. While he worked undercover in much of Eastern Montana, they were looking for distributers. Kemp, now the juvenile probation officer for the 15th Judicial District, spent over 30 years working undercover and with informants.
His goal was information. The information he gathered would help give law enforcement an idea of how and where drugs were being moved through the area.
Many of these busts through an undercover agent might not go to court right away, Glasgow Police Chief Bruce Barstad said. Sometime they aren’t even charged up to a year after information is given to them.
Undercover busts aren’t so easy. Valley County Attorney Nickolas “Nick” Murnion explained that special warrants in the state of Montana are needed to record interactions with individuals. He said that the paperwork that comes with these types of operations can be overwhelming, but the process helps law enforcement gather evidence for later prosecution. Since coming to Valley County, he said that he’s worked increasingly more with drugs.
“Drugs have been a constant here,” Murnion said. “The year before there were 40 felonies. Last year there were 25. There’s an increase in activity.”
He also explained that he sees a lot of the paperwork that the public may not see, which paints a picture of the types of individuals going to jail. He explained that the cost of drug cases on the county has been increasing as they begin to see more drug crimes. Drug and alcohol related traffic stops have been leading to an increase in DUIs (driving while under the influence), and the amount of drugs you are found with do count in court.
Once an individual gets busted for drugs, whether in a traffic stop or based on evidence and information, they have to face the courts. According to Sheriff Glen Meier, Valley County has been working hard to include rehabilitation with a jail sentence. Murnion said that drug related charges will often lead to a drug test, done by blood. Sometimes it can take around nine months for the results to come in, which is around the time of trial. Some cases can be rushed and prosecuted in a shorter amount of time.
A drug charge will be filed in the justice court, but after a preliminary examination it will be filed in district court. All evidence, including photos, sound bites and video will then be filed into the case. So what kind of time are you looking at in the slammer? That could depend on the amount of you’re carrying or the type of drug you’re caught with.
Possession of any amount of meth, including residue, will be an automatic felony. Marijuana will add up to a felony if you’re found with 60 grams or more. Distribution, or an intent to distribute prescription drugs or other drugs, will also add to your felony. (Take a look at the information box with this story to see what those maximum charges could add up to in fines and time.)
Alcohol also can fall into the felony category if you’re caught driving under the influence. If you’re caught four or more times, you’re facing a felony charge. Someone who has faced this many DUI charges will be placed in a 13-month program and must complete and follow probation. Murnion explained that many times those who end up in jail get a second look to keep them from coming back.
“Many times we assess the needs to see if they qualify for mental health or the department of chemical dependency,” Murnion said.
He also explained that when they get out of jail, they might be clean but going back into the same environment can cause problems. Sometime treatment is required when they are released.
Once they’ve gone through the system they face many challenges. Barstad explained that when they are released they face parole and probation and that their house can be checked at any time to ensure they don’t possess drugs. A warrant is no longer required to search an individuals house after they’ve been charged. If they parole or probation officer finds drugs in their residence it starts a whole new case.
“Probation officers can’t charge a new crime; they have to call it in,” Barstad said.
He added that juveniles are handled a little differently through the system. For the youth it can be a bigger challenge to stop problems before they reach adulthood.
Challenges in the law enforcement system include training officers and deputies to specialize in drugs. They must know the law, they must learn the culture, and they have to know how to gather and collect information properly. He said that knowing what to do with the information is a key to success as well.
The public might not know that if you knowingly transport a friend carrying drugs to distribute, you could be forfeiting your property. Barstad said that showing intent is important. People charged with distribution could also forfeit their house, cars and other property if it was bought with or used in the business of drugs.
One of the biggest issues with adults who go into the system is the children left behind.
Murnion said that youth in need of care in these types of cases have really increased. Cases involving children went from eight or nine a year to 24 in the last year. One result: Murnion said that in the last two years, they’ve added two positions specialized for children’s cases.
Next week: Find out how drugs have impacted family services in our area.