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Identity & Community

US Attorney and Local DA's to Fight Gun and Drug Crime with New Program

U.S. Department of Justice

The U.S. attorney’s office in Pittsburgh is elevating one prosecutor in each of four Western Pennsylvania counties to the status of Special Assistant United States Attorney in an effort to fight back against gun crime in the region.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton Tuesday launched the program that will allow cases to more easily move from state to federal court.

“The decision on whether it goes state or federal is usually a collaborative discussion between the U.S. attorney and the district attorney," Hickton said. "And the decision is usually based on where you can get the best sentence. It also is based at the investigative level on the resources that are needed.”

The prosecutors will remain in the county DA’s offices, but the cost of some of their time spent working on federal cases will be covered by Hickton’s office. The $40,000 earmarked for the effort is coming from unspent Project Safe Neighborhoods funds that have been reallocated.

The special assistant program will be reviewed in six months, and if it’s successful Hickton said he will look for more federal funding.

“Even if we don’t extend it’s going to create a working relationship in these four counties that’s even better than the one we have today,” Hickton said.

Cambria, Lawrence, Washington and Erie Counties were chosen for the program because each has a major interstate or U.S. highway running through it or nearby.

"I'm hoping it will be a choke point for the flow of the guns and the drugs," Hickton said. "It's designed to give us a presence where the highways are, because they're the arteries for the guns and the drugs."

Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone said the program will put valuable law enforcement resources — including the FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — more directly in touch with his office whenever a major weapons or drug seizure happens.

"We're going after the most serious offenders and having access to that federal grand jury system and working with the U.S. Attorney's Office really makes it easier on us," Vittone said.

Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri said the program is a "dream come true" for his department, which is trying to deal with a growing gang problem.

"It's about staying on top of some of these cases that are better suited for the federal courts, with longer sentences (available) for these gun toters and drug toters," Daneri said.