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Criminal defendants in fed court up 31 percent in western N.D. in 2013

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U.S. Attorney Purdon says multi-party drug conspiracy cases driving increase, expects trend to continue

BISMARCK – The number of criminal defendants charged in federal court in western North Dakota jumped by 31 percent in 2013 and has nearly doubled since 2011, a trend U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon expects to continue as drug trafficking intensifies in the state’s oil-producing counties.

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“I don’t expect that to stop anytime soon,” Purdon said Thursday at his Bismarck office.

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon

Year-end statistics compiled by the U.S. District Court of North Dakota show that while the number of criminal cases filed in the Minot-based northwest region and Bismarck-based southwest region actually decreased by three cases from 2012 to 2013, the number of defendants charged increased from 256 to 336. Last year’s total is nearly double the 172 defendants charged in 2011.

Purdon said a big reason for the increase is the number of multi-defendant drug conspiracy indictments in western North Dakota.

In one of the largest examples, 22 defendants were charged last March as a result of Operation Winter’s End, a multi-agency investigation into drug trafficking of heroin and methamphetamine on and around the Fort Berthold Reservation. Purdon said more than 40 people now face charges as a result of the operation.

Drug conspiracy cases aren’t new to North Dakota, but historically they’ve been concentrated in the eastern half of the state, Purdon said. Now, more cases are popping up in western counties and cities such as Dickinson, Williston, Watford City and Stanley, he said.

“We’re seeing heroin in a way we haven’t before,” he said. “The people dealing the drugs here are a lot closer to the sources.”

Authorities also have seen a reversal of how illegal drugs are distributed in the state, with bulk shipments now arriving first in western North Dakota and then being spread to the east, he said.

While the number of defendants was up 31 percent in the west last year, the Fargo-based southeast region and Grand Forks-based northeast region saw a combined decrease of 24 percent, from 202 to 154 defendants.

The number of criminal cases filed in the east also fell from 125 to 97, which Purdon attributed in part to shifting resources from his office and from federal law enforcement agencies to the west.

Purdon said his office has lost seven support staff in the least three years as the result of a federal hiring freeze and budget sequestration.

“We are literally doing more with less, and so I’m very proud of the team here,” he said, stressing that the drug cases are the result of “great cooperation” between local, state and federal authorities.

Being short-staffed is forcing the office to prioritize cases, focusing on large-scale drug trafficking organizations, he said.

In November, the White House designated Williams County as part of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program that also covers Burleigh, Cass, Grand Forks and Ward counties. Purdon said he is working with the HIDTA program to explore the possibility of adding a second special assistant U.S. attorney for North Dakota through the state Attorney General’s Office. The special prosecutor would be able to try cases in both state and federal court, he said.

The increase in criminal defendants out west also has put additional pressure on the U.S. Marshals Service, which must transport federal prisoners to and from a growing number of court appearances, said Paul Ward, U.S. Marshal for the District of North Dakota.

The district is down three deputies since 2010, and it wasn’t fully staffed then, Ward said.

“If we had the full staff we had then, we’d still be behind the 8-ball. It’s difficult to keep up with,” he said.

Finding jail space for federal prisoners also has become “a terrible issue,” especially in western North Dakota where jails are often full, Ward said. Local sheriffs are as accommodating as they can be, he said.

“But when they’re backed against the wall, there’s not much they can do. We’re pushing into Minnesota and South Dakota for jail space now,” he said.

That means higher costs and longer travel distances.

“And it’s a safety issue,” he said. “The more you have someone being transported, the higher the risk of something happening.”

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Mike Nowatzki
Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.
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