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U.S. Attorney Seeks Prison Time For Dealers Whose Drugs Kill

While there is a nationwide move toward sentencing nonviolent, first-time drug offenders to drug court and rehabilitation programs, U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld indicates his office will continue to seek prison time for those found guilty of selling large quantities of drugs that cause death.

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Northern West Virginia takes an aggressive approach to the threat posed by heroin and other opioids,” Ihlenfeld said. “We seek long sentences for the traffickers who sell these substances purely for profit. We also seek severe punishments for those who distribute heroin or fentanyl that leads to an overdose, whether it’s fatal or non-fatal.

“It’s true that the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency in the judicial branch — has enacted changes in the recent past that reduce the penalties for federal drug trafficking convictions. The U.S. Attorney’s Office — at least the one in Northern West Virginia — doesn’t have any influence over the decisions made by the commission.”

In 2013, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder inititiated a policy known as “Smart on Crime.” It required federal prosecutors target the most serious offenses and the most dangerous criminals, “and to make sure that punishments for low-level, nonviolent offenders were just,” Ihlenfeld said. The policy has continued under Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

“There appears to be a bipartisan push in Congress to enact sentencing reform, which would be consistent with the changes made and polices implemented by the Sentencing Commission and by attorney generals Holder and Lynch,” he said.

“Whether such a law is actually enacted remains to be seen.”

Ihlenfeld cited two recent drug cases in which prosecutors decided prison time was warranted.

Earlier this year, his office obtained a conviction against Lateef Fisher of Maryland for delivery of heroin causing death. Ihlenfeld said in a few weeks, his office will ask a federal judge to impose a life sentence for Fisher.

Also, in July, Shawn McClain of Cleveland was convicted for selling heroin and fentanyl in Wheeling.

“We already know of several users connected to him who overdosed,” Ihlenfeld said. “Already serving a 10-year sentence for a separate heroin conviction, we will ask that the court impose an additional 105 months in prison against McClain.”

Sentences in the federal system are, for the most part, based upon the seriousness of the offense and the criminal history of the defendant, according to Ihlenfeld. For drug trafficking cases, a key factor in determining the sentence is the total amount of drugs that a dealer has sold. A dealer who has sold 100 opioid pills will not be treated as harshly as one who has sold 10,000.

“Some of our defendants are deemed to be appropriate candidates for the drug court program, which began operating in the Northern District in February of 2015,” he said. “The decision on whether one is accepted into the program is made by the presiding judge after an assessment is performed and a team of professionals reviews the application.

“The drug court program is working, as participants are achieving sobriety, and we are hopeful that they will maintain sobriety for the long-term. The program is very challenging, and not everyone who is admitted is successful.”

Those who merely possess and use heroin and other illicit drugs — but don’t sell it — typically are not prosecuted in federal court in Northern West Virginia, according to Ihlenfeld.

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