In theory, counties in smaller, rural areas ought to jump at the chance to draw on the more substantial resources of the Utah attorney general's office.
But Sevier County Attorney Don Brown says he'd rather do it himself. Brown is asking that the attorney general's newly created Drug Prosecution Task Force keep its hands off of drug prosecution in Sevier County."I took the job on to do it and I'm going to do it and I'm going to do it with my people," he said.
But Paul M. Warner, associate deputy attorney general, says that kind of thinking leads to silly and unnecessary turf wars between federal, state and local jurisdictions.
"That's just the kind of petty turf wars we were afraid we'd get into," he said.
Brown, who prosecutes the lion's share of drug-trafficking cases on I-70's "cocaine lane" is upset that the attorney general's office did not consult with local counties before securing a $485,000 federal grant to fund an 18-month task force. And he's also upset the grant money will not be used to address the tremendous financial effect that drug prosecutions have on local government.
"The idea of housing three lawyers in an office in Salt Lake City to dictate drug prosecution in Sevier County is absurd," Brown said, "The last thing we need is three attorneys. What we really need is investigators, so when we come up with a big bust we can track these guys down and poke holes in their story."
Law enforcement in southern and central Utah is doing as much as it can, considering its limited resources. But prosecution of
drug offenders has never been a problem.
"We are exhausting all the local avenues for tracing and tracking, but we have not had any problems prosecuting cases," he said. "That's the last of my concerns. I was elected to try cases here and I'm going to do it."
Brown doesn't like the idea that the $485,000 task force does not allocate money for witnesses, public defenders' fees, jail costs and the myriad other costs associated with drug prosecutions.
"I have a lot of problems with the attorney general coming down here and filing actions and the county having no control. Prosecutions must be managed by the same people paying the bills."
Brown said he hopes the new task force will focus its efforts on interstate drug-trafficking investigations, providing a much-needed technical assistance to law enforcement investigators.
Warner said he's not surprised to hear complaints from Brown.
"Don Brown is one of the best county attorneys in the state, but he's also one of the most independent," Warner said. "Don, to his credit, has never come to our office for assistance."
He also pointed out that the grant could not be used to fund investigators. "We tried to have an investigator and they said no." He also suggested that county attorneys tap special drug investigators organized by the Utah Department of Public Safety.
He said the task force is not designed to usurp the jurisdiction of county attorneys, but rather to simply assist where needed.
"We're not trying to supplant Don Brown," he said. "If he doesn't want our cooperation, he can continue to do his own thing."
However, Warner said the attorney general has statewide jurisdiction and so doesn't necessarily need the approval of the county attorney to prosecute in a particular county.
Warner said most county attorneys will welcome the help. Specifically, he said Grand County Attorney Elaine Coates whose county also has a portion of the I-70 drug pipeline had indicated she would welcome such assistance.
Coates said she didn't recall making that statement, but she agreed.
"I hadn't asked for help, but I'm certainly willing to accept anything they want to give me," she said.
However, she said she hasn't come across a case she hasn't been able to handle on her own, even though she has no deputies and handled all cases personally.
"I don't necessarily need an attorney to come in here unless we get a very unusual case," she said. "And right off, I can't imagine one."
She also echoed some of Brown's criticisms concerning the need for more investigators.
"Sometimes, we can't get investigations done fast enough," Coates said. "When the defendants can't make bail and our people have to meet the constitutional requirement to have a hearing in 10 days, they're getting their workload."
Emery County Attorney Scott Johansen, whose jurisdiction is also along the drug route, said he's still not up to speed on the details of the drug task force. But he said he welcomes any assistance.
"I can say the the attorney general's office has always been good to work with, and don't think we will have any problem getting along," he said.
But he said he he's gotten along just fine so far without any help. He said he could use more investigators, although he said a full-time prosecutor would also be a great help.
"I agree that the critical need is in investigative end, but prosecution could be improved on, too, in my judgment," he said.
Most drug traffickers are prosecuted in state courts. However, about six months ago, Public Safety Commissioner John T. Nielsen instructed his Utah Highway Patrol troopers to send through the federal system all cases involving more than 10 kilograms of cocaine.
"Like it or not, this county is going to bear the economic burdens (of drug-trafficking investigations and prosecutions) and we need to have a say in how it is handled. I would just as soon handle my own cases," Brown said.