BROOKINGS – Brookings County saw a record number of felony convictions in 2019, and the jump was largely due to two areas: possession of and ingesting THC oil, and methamphetamine distribution.
There were a total of 222 felony convictions this past year, according to numbers provided by the Brookings County State’s Attorney’s Office. That compares to 189 in 2018, 134 in 2017, 177 in 2016 and 148 in 2015.
State’s Attorney Dan Nelson said Brookings County law enforcement has seen a spike in the number of people using THC oil in vaping devices, which is a felony offense in South Dakota.
“This is a national trend. Due to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, THC oil specifically, they hook it up to a vaporizer. Because Colorado is a nearby state, we’ve seen an increase in Brookings County with that substance in particular,” Nelson said.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials blame vitamin E acetate – a thickening agent that’s been added to illicit THC vaping liquids – for the “vast majority” of cases in the U.S. outbreak of vaping-related illnesses, according to a Dec. 20 report from the Associated Press.
The South Dakota Department of Health has reported 13 cases of lung disease associated with e-cigarette use, or vaping. They’ve been reported in individuals ages 16-44 years, with cases identified in Brookings, Codington, Davison, Lincoln, and Minnehaha counties.
“I think with our college community, the fact that you can vape tobacco and you can vape THC oil using the same device has made it much easier to access, much easier to distribute, and I think the fact that it’s being brought in by the truckload from Colorado, it’s just difficult for law enforcement right now, with the THC oil, because there’s such an abundance of it,” he added.
Nelson said individuals may also be under the false impression that THC oil is a misdemeanor.
From 2018 to 2019, unauthorized possession of a controlled substance felony convictions jumped from 43 to 57. Unauthorized ingestion of a controlled substance dropped slightly, from 64 in 2018 to 59 in 2019.
As of Dec. 18, there were 86 convictions and cases pending involving methamphetamine in Brookings County, and there were 68 involving THC oil.
Targeting meth dealers
Felony drug distribution convictions in 2019 came to 11 total, compared to three in 2018. This past year also included three felony convictions for violating drug-free zones, compared to none in 2018.
Nelson said local law enforcement made an effort in the past year to go after meth distributors more aggressively.
“We’re proud of those numbers this year, indicating how aggressive we’ve been with meth distribution. … And most of those have resulted in penitentiary sentences,” Nelson said.
“In this last quarter, meth (distribution) has dried up in Brookings. … The officers have done a fantastic job, and I give them all the credit. I sit in this office and I process paperwork. Those are the guys out on the streets and using the confidential informants. It’s a credit to them because they give me rock-solid cases.”
Nelson noted that meth is still the No. 1 felony in Brookings County, so users are still finding it outside of Brookings and bringing it here.
“If you’re a distributor, I’m going to try to send you to the penitentiary. If you’re a user, I going to try to do my best to make sure you get help. And I think this year we’ve done a good job of trying to draw the line between those two.”
Felony child abuse cases also rose in 2019. There were no convictions in 2018 and five convictions last year.
Nelson said despite the increase in felony convictions the State’s Attorney’s office is seeing, one of his goals that he’s met for the past year was to reduce overtime.
“In 2017 and 2018, there was $22,000 paid out in overtime to this office specifically. This year, we’ve only paid out $14,000. So we’ve saved almost $8,000 in taxpayer money. … I think what we’re most proud of this year is the fact that we’ve been able to convict and process more felony offenses while simultaneously doing it with far less money.”
Nelson said overtime was cut by making modifications and reforms to legal documents, so staff could process them in a more timely and efficient manner, often in real time as defendants were appearing in court.
The other change is the State’s Attorney’s Office is using a new software program called Evidence.com, which is used by both the Brookings County Sheriff’s Office and the Brookings Police Department.
All digital, visual and audio evidence is put into a cloud, and a secure link to that evidence can be sent to defense attorneys when necessary, instead of burning it to a hard disk, “which has significantly cut down on the time this office has spent on downloading and putting that same audio and visual on a hard disk and then sending it off to the defense attorney.”
Nelson said that means defense attorneys are receiving evidence more quickly, and that can speed up the time it takes them to process a case.
Using Evidence.com did not cost Brookings County any additional funds because the sheriff’s office already had a contract with and was paying a fee for use of Axon body cameras.
With overtime hours trending downward throughout 2019, Nelson said his goal for 2020 is to have less than $1,000 in overtime in the State’s Attorney’s Office.
Contact Jill Fier at [email protected]