Behind the Headlines – March 16, 2018

Behind the Headlines – March 16, 2018


– (female narrator)
Production funding for Behind The Headlines is made possible in part by: the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like you.
Thank you. – The region’s new
U.S. attorney on crime and criminal justice, tonight
on Behind The Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] I’m Eric Barnes, publisher
of The Memphis Daily News. Thanks for joining us. I’m joined tonight by
Michael Dunavant, new, relatively new U.S. attorney
for Western Tennessee. Thanks for being here. – I’m glad to be here. Thank you. – Along with Bill
Dries, Senior Reporter, with The Memphis Daily News. You were appointed in and
voted on by the senate in September so relatively new, and certainly the
first time on the show. So we thank you for being here. We’ll try to go through
as much as we can of your priorities and
some of your background. To start with right now, and before we get into, I know it’s one of the many
priorities that you’ve laid out, but still with the
country in the middle of this conversation
about gun violence, and after the tragic events
in Parkland, Florida, what, from your seat,
as a U.S. attorney in Western Tennessee, what
can you do about gun violence? And let’s start specifically
with mass shootings, or potential mass shootings. Where does that fall, or does
that fall within your purview? – Well, certainly it does. If we are able to have an
arrest and a prosecution of the offender or anyone
associated with that event who’s criminally responsible, that can violate
state and federal law, and we work with the
district attorney’s office. We work with the Memphis Police,
the Shelby County Sheriff, all of the federal
component agencies here in Memphis
and Shelby County, and across West Tennessee. We particularly focus on, at least from the U.S.
attorney’s standpoint, in the grand scheme
of violent crime, we know that most violent crime
is committed with firearms. So all of these offenses that
you see on school shootings, mass shootings, or
involve a firearm, that does violate federal law, whether it is a
prohibited person in possession or
use of a firearm, a firearm on the
premises of a school or discharged in a school zone is a violation of federal law. So primarily the response from
the U.S. attorney’s office is we work with the
FBI, we work with ATF, we work with our local law
enforcement to respond, to determine whether we
can in a reactive way prosecute and hold people
accountable for those actions. I will say on the front
end of those things, it’s often hard to
prevent and predict those. But in the wake of this
I have been participating with a group formed by Shelby
County Mayor, Mark Luttrell, that includes all
those law enforcement and other community
and school leaders. We’re trying to put our
heads together to make sure that we have a comprehensive
approach to it. – I suppose in some ways it’s
almost an unfair question, but I’ll keep asking it. Once that crime has happened, once the crime
reaches your office, that crime has already happened,
or presumably happened. But do you look at it, you were a district
attorney for, was it Lauderdale
County, before this? – Yes, I was actually district
attorney for five counties in West Tennessee
out of Memphis here. – Is there, just
a simple question, with a lot of ramifications, are there simply too
many guns out there? – I think there are too
many guns in the hands of prohibited or
dangerous people. I don’t think as a general
rule there are too many guns. Law abiding people who
can lawfully possess and own firearms really
don’t create a whole lot of problem for us in the
criminal justice system. It is the prohibited
person that is the minor, the juvenile, the criminal
alien, the convicted felon, the person who has a
background of domestic violence convictions or
orders of protection. People who are engaged in
possessing stolen firearms or prohibited weapons such
as short barrel shotguns or machine guns. Those are the things
that we focus on in the Department of
Justice of getting those out of the hands of people before
they commit a crime with them. – Before I go to Bill, would
you like to see, again, as a part of the
criminal justice system, person involved at
the local level now, the federal level,
the regional level. Is there more than
needs to be done in terms of laws
and rules out there that would keep guns
out of the hands of the prohibited people
you’re discussing? – The short answer is yes. And I think the attorney
general and president are working on that now. You see that on
a national scale. You see that with FBI and
ATF coming to the forefront, and I’m part
of that conversation here in West Tennessee. I would say also
however there is a value to aggressive investigation
and prosecution, holding people accountable
hopefully preempting those crimes by capturing
and prosecuting people who are in possession
of firearms before they pull the trigger. – Since you took
office last year, we have seen a lot of cases
involving street gangs and involving street gangs
as a criminal enterprise. Is this a priority
for your office in terms of basically
suppressing these gangs? – Yes, it is. It’s one of the top priorities
of the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney’s
office here in West Tennessee. I have been privileged to
serve and part of that service includes setting priorities
for what we believe is the crime problem and concern here in West
Tennessee and Memphis. What we know is that
drug conspiracies, organized crime in the
form of gang activity, gun trafficking,
human trafficking, are all done by people
who are coming together and agreeing and conspiring to
commit those crimes together. So it is a high priority
for us to make sure that we are dismantling and
disrupting that organization and we’re holding
them accountable from the very top leader
down to the lower people who are doing the
work on the ground. So, yes. – It used to be that whenever
one of these announcements was made the priority
would be on what we called putting a lot of
drugs on the table. Now, these charges are
detailed in such a way that the emphasis is
really on the structure of these organizations
and the reach of these organizations as well. – Yes, that’s correct. – And the indictments
also used to read you might a name of 18 people and all of them were alleged
members of the Gangster Disciples or Traveling
Vice Lords or one gang. Do you see more of a
mix now of gang members coming from different
organizations and coming together
in these cases? – Yes, we do. In fact, what you’ll
see if you look closely at the indictments
that we’re filing is not just the racketeering
and the organized crime or the gang conspiracy
or the drug conspiracy, and not just drug thresholds
of an amount of cocaine or methamphetamine or heroine. What you see is a
money laundering count. So we are targeting
the financial structure of these organizations. These are businessmen. They come together from all
different types of groups. Across gang, rivalries, for
the purpose of making money. And they make money
by selling drugs, which is poison to our children. They make money by dealing
in stolen firearms. They make money by violence. So it’s a money
making opportunity. One of the best ways
we know to attack and dismantle these
gangs, these structures, is to go after the
financial incentive, money laundering and
also to identify people who we can’t nicely put
into separate categories. We identify that they’re
conspiring and coming together to commit criminal acts then
they’re criminally responsible for the overall
conspiracy and we want to attack that from that angle. – Is the gang hierarchy
a traditional hierarchy? Is that in flux? Or is that crumbling and giving
way to a new organization? – I think that each time
you see us take on a gang we are fairly
successful in disrupting and dismantling certain gangs. For instance, most recently
we believe that we completely took down the Major
Stackz Entertainment gang. They call themselves
that as a name, ostensibly because they say
they’re in the music business or in the rap business. But ultimately that was
something that just popped up and they created a
name for themselves, really for the purpose
of committing crimes. We’ve now removed
them from the streets. So whatever organization
or other group of people who will come along again, they’ll just rename
themselves something else. They may be Vice Lords
or Gangster Disciples. They may be Crips or whatever. But they will all come together. So it is, it’s almost
like whack-a-mole. They pop up. They create some name. They create some presence on
the internet or social media. They do their business. They organize in such
a way that it’s loose, and yet effective. We take them out and
another one comes along. So we are certainly
pursuing them vigorously. We believe that we’ve made a
major dent in some of them. You may remember a few years ago Mr. Stanton took down, I
believe, the FAM Mob gang. You don’t hear or see
much of that name anymore. You may have some
of those players that move in and out of gangs. It’s very frustrating. It’s very challenging
for law enforcement. But we are being effective. That’s why you see
multiple count indictments with multiple defendants. – When you say Stanton,
that’s your predecessor, Ed Stanton, who was on
the show, I believe, who was appointed
by President Obama. So many questions
to go from there. One, and I’m curious
with your background in more of rural West Tennessee, but also as U.S. attorney
for West Tennessee, that reaches all the way, I
assume there are three districts in Tennessee, a west,
middle, and east. These issues of
gang problems are people who live in
Memphis understand that. They know there are
gangs in Memphis. To what degree are there
gangs in rural Tennessee and drug trade and some of the
things you’re talking about? To what degree do
those activities happen outside the city? – They are prevalent. They exist and we
are aware of them. I was the district attorney in
Lauderdale and Tipton County, Fayette, Hardeman,
and McNairy Counties. And I currently now
represent all 22 counties of the Western
district of Tennessee. Really, everything in the
Western Grand Division. What we know, number one, is
that all of West Tennessee goes typically as
Shelby County does. That is, we have a major
interstate coming through West Tennessee from Mexico,
through Texas and Arkansas, into West Tennessee. That is a major
trafficking pipeline from that area to the east cost. Those drugs and guns and
victims are trafficked through here and to here. What we also know is that
there is a perception, at least among gang members
and other criminals, that they may prey upon
people out in the country, out in rural areas because
they don’t perceive that law enforcement is capable of detecting or capturing them. – That’s so interesting. By prey, I mean, it’s horrible, but it’s interesting because
I don’t think I knew that. Prey upon them in what sense? In terms of selling drugs
and committing violence? – Everything from home
invasion burglaries, to robberies, to identity
theft, to yes, of course, selling drugs and other
drive-by shootings, and violence of that type. They believe they
can go out into areas where there’s an easier
target to make money, to steal money, to
conspire to sell drugs. There is at least a
perception that there’s less of a law enforcement
presence that might detect or capture them and
then they can come back into Shelby County or
into Madison County, a larger metropolitan
area and do that. – Perhaps stay with
gangs, but maybe not. But on terms of drugs,
right now the country and Memphis and West
Tennessee the opioid crisis, and we’ve had local health
department people on, and we’ve had
county commissioners and city council people on talking about suing the drug, it’s a huge problem. I’m curious what your
office is doing about that. What’s your office doing
in terms of opioids? To what degree are gangs
involved with trafficking that sort of thing or
to what degree is it really legal prescriptions
getting in the hands of people who, legal
drugs getting in the hands of people who use
them abusively? – Number one, from
our office standpoint the Department of Justice
has made it very clear that this is a top priority. So what we have done
almost immediately since I came on board
is we have appointed and assigned an
opioid coordinator, an assistant United State’s
attorney in my office that does nothing but focus on opioid prosecutions
and investigations. Number two, we have
a district strategy in our office for
investigation and prosecution of opioid-related crimes. Focusing on heroine, fentanyl,
and the other prescription pain killers, whether
they’re being diverted out of legitimate
prescription methods, whether they’re
being sold or stolen, or whether they are
as a result of people turning to hard street
drugs like heroine and fentanyl, we are
targeting and we’re reviewing every overdose death
to make sure if we can go back and investigate
the source of that and hold that
person accountable. We’re attempting to make
sure that we are regulating and watching those
health care professionals that might be abusing or
dishonoring their oath, might be diverting
those into the market. – The legal drugs, the
Oxycontin, the codeine, etc., those are coming from, those
are legal in the United States. Now, they might be being abused. So I am curious are you, I mean, is the person
who abuses those drugs, who gets hooked on them,
is that person a criminal? And is that a priority? Or as you maybe just implied, the priority is the
people prescribing it, diverting it, or selling
and getting it out there? – I will tell you certainly
that we have a comprehensive approach but our approach
is more geared towards the supply side, not as
much the demand side. The people who obtain lawful
legitimate prescriptions for pain and pain
medication and take them as prescribed are not criminals. No, that’s fully legal. It is only when that
creates an addiction and a dependence that
drives people to seek out other street drugs or
to commit other crimes that is in fact
criminal behavior. We know that addiction fuels
people to seek out heroine, which is cheaper,
it’s more affordable, and more readily available. And what we know is that as
they chase that euphoria, as they chase that high
that they’re looking for and that addiction, they
need stronger and stronger and more and more and ultimately
they turn to fentanyl, which can kill them– – And I’m sorry to cut you off. I am curious how this compares, I would assume as a
former district attorney, the meth epidemic, I
mean, the meth problem, how does this compare,
how is it similar, how is it different to, I mean, meth was bad
enough and still is bad, I mean, it’s not that
that has gone away. What are the similarities
and differences and then we’ll go to Bill? – I will tell you that
you have to look at this from a historical perspective. When I first started
practicing law 23 years ago I can recall that the
major street drug problem was crack cocaine. People were hooked on
crack and it was creating a lot of violent crime and a
lot of addiction and heartache. We really fought back
with that on state law, met some mandatory
minimums under federal law, and really got serious about
tackling the crack epidemic. We still have crack
cocaine today. People are still addicted to it, and it’s still trafficked. In the mid-2000s we did
undergo the methamphetamine epidemic where not only
were people addicted to it, they were actually able to
manufacture it themselves. They were making it
in bathtubs and barns and hotel rooms and bathrooms. And they were converting
dangerous chemicals into methamphetamine
that was a fire hazard, an explosive hazard. So it wasn’t just the addiction. It was the manufacturing
component of that. What we did under state
law, as you’ll remember, we regulated pseudoephedrine, the precursor ingredient
to make methamphetamine, in such a way that
people weren’t able to make it anymore themselves. They’re not blowing
themselves up anymore. But they’re still addicted
to methamphetamine. Now, it’s just being trafficked,
manufactured from China or Mexico and trafficked
into West Tennessee in a purer form, a
more dangerous form. And gangs and drug
dealers are making a whole lot of money on it. Now, the new animal
on the block, the new problem
obviously is opiates, and the prescription drugs
are creating an addiction that drives people to
heroine and fentanyl. And it’s more deadly than any of the other things
I just talked about. – We’ll go to Bill. – In the last week U.S.
Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has talked about
going or looking at the big pharmaceutical
companies to see if there’s any kind of legal
culpability there. I think that’s kind of
a good way to get into this whole question of when
we see something on the news, or report on
something in the news, about a discussion in
Washington among the president and the U.S. attorney general, those are not your
marching orders. Your marching orders
come in a more formal way as part of a discussion
process in the beginning. So when the U.S. attorney
general says we need to start looking at
pharmaceutical companies, that statement in
and of itself is not where your office begins. It’s more detailed than that. – That’s correct. Those decisions,
those policy decisions and legal decisions are
made at the highest levels of the Department of
Justice in Washington, D.C. Those decisions about litigation
against drug companies are certainly legitimate
and we support them. We support that that’s one
way to tackle this problem. But here on the ground
in West Tennessee we are not focused on
filing those lawsuits and litigating in our courts
here in West Tennessee. We’re really focused on,
again, the supply side of the traffickers, the
people who are creating the overdoses and
overdose deaths, the people who are
making money on that. And we are aggressively
focused on those cases in such a way that we have
ramped up our case loads and there are people who will be going to federal
penitentiary for that. So our litigation
is not necessarily civil litigation
against drug companies. It is criminal litigation
against criminals who are making money and
killing people in this district. – What is your office’s
operating priority now in terms of enforcing
immigration laws, which as you know, there’s
been so much discussion about? – I will say we do have
a renewed commitment to criminal immigration
enforcement. I want to make this very clear, because there’s a lot
of misunderstanding about this in the public. Number one, it is against
federal law, it is a crime, to be in this country illegally without a proper permit or visa. Let’s make that clear. However, the Department
of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs, they have an administrative
removal procedure. That is, if you’re found
to be in this country without permission, without
a valid permit or visa, you can be
administratively removed. My office does not engage in
that litigation or that action. That is actually
a separate court, a separate
administrative agency, and that’s all handled
by the Department of Homeland Security and
Immigration and Customs. What we are focused on here
in the U.S. attorney’s office, however, is what we refer
to as a criminal alien. I think words are
important here, Bill. Immigrants are people who
have come here legally or in the process of obtaining
legal status properly. Aliens are people who
are here illegally. So I prefer to call
them criminal aliens because that’s what
they are under the law. Those people who come
here without permission, they’re not here legally, and
then commit additional crimes that violate federal law, those are the ones
we’re focused on, the criminal aliens who are
in possession of firearms, who are trafficking firearms,
who are selling drugs. Those criminal aliens who are
engaged in identity theft, document fraud in
order to obtain work or to compromise some
type of security, or to steal identities. And then aggravated
re-entry into this country. What we see over and over again is the administrative
removal process will work, we’ll remove and deport
people and they will come right back here
into this country. We will be able to
document and find that they have
illegally re-entered. That’s a crime. – About five minutes left. Staying with immigration
for a second, I mean, so is there a
distinction in your office between the person
who comes and commits one of the crimes that
you just talked about, the criminal alien
as you call them, and the person who comes
here without a visa, comes here illegally
and is in school, is in college, has a job. Is that a person that’s
on your priority list or on your radar to be removed? They’re here illegally,
but they are participating. They’re ostensibly paying taxes and they’re simply
living their life. – I would say that that’s
a person that does not come on my radar because
I don’t know about them unless Immigration and
Customs brings them to me for a criminal
charging decision. I would say that we, one of the priorities of
the Department of Justice is making sure that we are
enforcing the rule of law. And we enforce it evenhandedly
and without regard to person. So I would say that
if that person is here and yet they are
still going to school and they believe
they’re being productive they’re still in
violation of the law, and there is a
consequence for that, either administratively
or criminally. I will tell you the ones
that come to my attention, the ones that are brought to
me for criminal investigation and prosecution are those
who are here illegally who have come back
illegally and are continuing to commit crimes that
endanger our people and our society here
in West Tennessee. – I’m curious, with
just a few minutes left, and we can do a whole show
just on this question. We’ve done other shows,
and we’ll have you back hopefully and talk more
about all of these issues and things we won’t get to. You talked about the crack
cocaine, I think it was, you said that mandatory
minimums were put in place and that was part of
solving that problem or at least mitigating
that problem. Where are you on questions
of criminal justice reform? We’ve had people on the show. We’ve talked about a lot of
local level and state level, now on a federal level. There are people, and
there’s nationally people in very conservative
states, Texas for instance, Oklahoma, states that
are looking and saying, look these idea of
mandatory minimum, this idea that we’re
going to lock everybody up as the solution to
all levels of crime are beginning to question that. So taking out for
a second the person who’s the head of the
gang, who’s killed someone, the ultra-violent
conspiratorial people, but maybe let’s say the
person who is working on a street corner in a gang
and is “only passing along” a small amount of drugs,
or is swept up somehow by their choice
by a bad decision, but a low level offense,
what is your take on that? And is jail, prison,
the right answer for those low level offenses? – There is and ought
to be a consequence for all criminal behavior. That is the rule of
law in this country. And I’m a firm
believer that if we say we’re going to enforce
the law and we don’t that we are encouraging
and emboldening more criminal behavior. That’s what’s been
wrong with the state law that I practiced for
many, many years, and prosecuted under
is that we did not have mandatory minimums. We did not have truth in
sentencing in our state law. We said that if you
broke into someone’s home and committed aggravated
burglary you got three years in prison,
but that was not the case. What it really meant
was that you got three years and
30% with probation. That’s not justice. And that’s doing what we
say we’re going to do. Under federal law
there is no parole. You serve 100% of your sentence. And in certain circumstances
there are mandatory minimums. I guess I would
say to you, Eric, is that those
consequences are there. If people want to make
choices to commit crimes, then we will enforce them. And we will enforce
them unapologetically. There are some people
who are so dangerous that they do not need
to be walking among us. There are some people
who need to be stopped in their criminal behavior
because they continue to repeat offend and recidivate over and over and over again. I believe the
reason that they do is because we didn’t
do what we said we would do in the first place. – In that sense you
think that the federal, the 100%, you’re gonna
serve the full amount that you’re sentenced to,
is that effective? – (Michael)
Yes. – Do those people not, there’s not as much recidivism, people going back
into jail who come out of those 100% sentences? – I will tell you that
it accomplishes the goals of criminal prosecution
and public safety. And that is to incapacitate
dangerous offenders, to hold people accountable
for the rule of law, and violation of it. It is specifically and
generally a deterrent to that individual
who is in prison and to other people
in the public that can be seen that
we mean what we say. It accomplishes
justice for victims. Often we forget about
the victims of crime who also deserve justice. And it enforces the rule of law. So I do believe that it
is very effective tool in making sure that we’re
keeping our communities safe by putting people
in penitentiaries. – We’ll leave it there. Thank you for being here. We’ll have you here again
and talk about more. Thank you, Bill. And thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

Author:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *