Federal prosecution looms for dealers

New appointment could lead to harsher penalties for drug crimes

For Lawrence drug dealers, there’s now a greater threat of being prosecuted in federal court, where drug penalties often are more severe.

Last week Assistant Douglas County District Attorney Brandon Jones was sworn in as a special Assistant U.S. Attorney. Jones will be authorized to work as a prosecutor in drug cases at federal court in Kansas City – a change that could mean more local cases will be tried in federal court.

“We want to send a clear message: If you deal drugs in Douglas County, you will go to prison,” Dist. Atty. Charles Branson said.

In the past, it’s not been uncommon for federal prosecutors to pick up a few local drug cases per year, including the recent cocaine-dealing case involving former Lawrence High School basketball star Maurice Trotter and his brother, Mardell. One former Douglas County prosecutor likened federal court to a “surgical ward” to deal with especially severe drug cases.

But federal prosecutors couldn’t always charge Lawrence cases if they were too busy with other matters, Branson said. In that case, the matter would end up going back to the state court system.

Now, if the feds are too busy, Jones will be able to step in. Branson estimated Jones would take three or four cases per year in federal court.

By holding the threat of federal penalties over drug dealers’ heads, the change could have an influence on plea bargaining. It also could make people who get caught with drugs more likely to work with police to help make a case against someone higher up the supply chain.

“Maybe the biggest impact will be the ability to threaten people with the prospect of federal prosecution if they don’t play ball in state court,” said Lawrence resident Kirk Redmond, a federal public defender in Topeka.