By Patrick Winderl
Almost $14,000 in illegal drugs and other items were seized by the Tri-Agency Task Force during the past three months. The team exceeded its goals for the period, but posted lower numbers than it did in the previous quarter.
Task force agent Jerry Nystrom attributed the disparity to changes in the availability of illegal drugs.
"We see this type of thing on a regular basis," he said. "We'll be really busy, then slow down, get really busy again, then slow down."
The task force has three agents who work drug cases in Hill, Liberty, Blaine, Phillips, and Judith Basin counties. The team works in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies and the FBI to fight the sale and use of illegal drugs in north-central Montana.
In a period spanning October through December, task force agents seized 16.55 grams of methamphetamine, 72.94 grams of marijuana, and 60 prescription pills worth more than $3,000, a release from the task force said.
Three guns, two vehicles and $4,400 in suspected drug money were also taken, the statement said.
Agents made 20 arrests, opened 15 new cases, identified 95 new suspects, worked three federal cases and busted two suspected meth labs over the three- month period. A total of $13,641 in drugs and suspected drug-related assets were seized.
Nystrom said the team busted suspected meth labs in Malta and Conrad late last year. People charged in connection with the operation of the meth labs face stiff prison sentences if convicted.
State law provides for prison terms of up to 40 years and a $100,000 fine for those convicted of operating an unlawful clandestine laboratory, if firearms are involved. If convicted of criminal production or manufacture of dangerous drugs, under state law, a suspect faces at least five years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.
Federal laws call for even stiffer sentences.
"If at all possible, we try to go for federal prosecution," Nystrom said. "The penalties are more severe in federal court, so that's always one of our goals."
To warrant federal prosecution, a drug violation must be connected to an Indian reservation, or involve large quantities of certain drugs, Nystrom said. The FBI assists with all investigations that qualify for federal drug charges.
One technique the agencies use to build cases against drug dealers is the controlled purchase. The FBI and the task force use surveillance equipment to monitor a deal in which an informant buys drugs from a dealer.
Over the past 18 months, the FBI office in Havre has achieved a 100 percent indictment and conviction rate in federal drug cases.
Facing overwhelming evidence, the majority of defendants plead guilty under agreements with prosecutors, Nystrom said.
The quarterly performance of the Tri-Agency Task Force was solid, he added. In some categories, the task force has already exceeded its goals for the entire year.
For instance, one goal this year was to make 25 drug arrests. So far TATF has made 41. Another was to identify an average of one meth lab per quarter. Two suspected labs were identified in the second quarter, bringing the total this year to five.
"We had just increased our goals last time around, and we beat our numbers again," he said. "Our funding remained the same but our objectives went up, so you can see the work is there. The cooperation between different agencies has really contributed to our success."
The numbers from the second quarter of this fiscal year were down sharply from the first three months of the year. During July, August and September, the task force seized drugs and suspected drug-related assets worth almost six times the value of those taken in October through December. The total value for contraband taken during the first quarter was $86,600.
The figures for the first quarter exceeded those from the second quarter in almost every area, including the amounts of meth, cocaine, marijuana and prescription pills seized, and suspected drug money and drug-related assets seized or forfeited.
Nystrom said part of the reason the team seized a smaller amount of drugs this quarter was because it was focusing on a large methamphetamine conspiracy case.
"Drug cases are ongoing and take a lot of time," he said. "Often the results don't show for several months. Working this large conspiracy case has taken away from our street time, so we haven't had as many drug buys as we have in the past."
Nystrom declined to release any further details about the case.
During the second quarter of the 2001-2002 fiscal year, agents confiscated drugs that had three times the value of illegal drugs seized in the same quarter this year, but did not confiscate any vehicles or weapons. The total value of the illegal drugs seized by TATF during the second quarter last year was estimated to be $10,645.
Nystrom said last year's figures represented "an exceptional quarter" for the task force.