Police and prosecutors are fuming about a judge’s decision to set bail at $20,000 for a twice-arrested, accused heroin dealer, found in possession of 2,100 bags of opiates, while a deadly heroin epidemic rages in the community.
Not only was bail too low, they say, but the prosecutor was not allowed to make a recommendation.
And the kind of heroin-fentanyl mixture that the dealer is accused of selling is similar to an especially lethal batch responsible for a recent spike in overdoses that led to at least one death.
Just a few hours after Buffalo City Court Judge Betty Calvo-Torres set the $20,000 bail for Dellsean Hamilton on Thursday afternoon, he made bail and was back on the streets, despite the fact that the overdose death of a Concord man led to Hamilton’s arrest. What’s more, Hamilton already was out on bail for a similar drug arrest in Cheektowaga.
Meanwhile on Thursday and into Friday, 10 opiate overdoses occurred over 24 hours in Buffalo, including one death. Whether Hamilton’s merchandise was responsible remains under investigation. But police and prosecutors say that the judge’s bail only hurt efforts to curb the opiate epidemic that claimed 119 lives in Erie County last year and is on track to double this year.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Cheektowaga Assistant Police Chief James J. Speyer Jr., whose detectives arrested Hamilton in March. “The business is obviously lucrative if he could bail himself out that quick. It is very frustrating and I believe he is making a mockery of the system.”
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III was equally upset.
“Any defendant is cloaked with the presumption of innocence and the people must prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “However, when I see a defendant with 2,100 bags of dope, $12,000 in cash and three guns, that suggests to me that he is engaged criminal activity.”
The News called Calvo-Torres’ chambers seeking comment and received no response.
Especially galling to Sedita was that the judge would not allow Assistant District Attorney Meredith M. Mohun to make a bail recommendation at Hamilton’s arraignment.
“The judge forbade the assistant DA from making a bail recommendation,” Sedita said.
“The judge said ‘You are not permitted to make a bail recommendation in my courtroom. That is my job’,” Sedita said, quoting the jurist.
“It is outrageous and contrary to the provisions of criminal procedure law,” Sedita said.
It was also a first, he added.
“In fact, this is the first time in my nearly 27-year career as a prosecutor that I’ve ever heard of a judge ordering us that we cannot even make a bail recommendation in a serious felony case,” Sedita said. “I would have made a six-figure bail recommendation.”
Hamilton was released less than 24 hours after detectives at 6 p.m. Wednesday simultaneously raided his South Buffalo residence and an East Side stash house where he allegedly stored the drugs.
The judge failed to take into consideration that the 26-year-old Hamilton had been arrested on drug charges that are still pending in Cheektowaga and that he was free on bail in that case, police said.
Others in law enforcement said that Hamilton’s alleged crimes make him a threat to the community, and that he is in a deadly business. He told his customers he was selling heroin when in fact it was mostly fentanyl laced with some heroin, detectives said, and that is an especially lethal combination.
Fentanyl is a manufactured opioid and significantly more potent than heroin, which comes from the poppy plant. Fentanyl has been blamed for many of the increasing numbers of fatal overdoses in the region. Twice this year, first in early April and then this past week, authorities have issued warnings to drug addicts that “hot batches” of fentanyl and heroin are causing overdoses and deaths.
Now that Hamilton is free again on bail, police fear he will resume his alleged drug dealing or flee.
Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, whose narcotics detectives participated in the most recent Hamilton drug arrest, also was angry with the low bail and to people calling drug dealing a nonviolent crime.
“Referring to drug dealers as nonviolent while their customers are dying as a result of their product I suppose doesn’t send the message we need to end the drug problem,” Howard said, referring to President Obama’s decision early last week to commute the prison sentences of some nonviolent felons with drug-dealing convictions.
A former Buffalo narcotics detective also said it was wrongheaded to say the business of drug dealers is nonviolent.
“We hear about drug offenses being nonviolent, but here we have dealers killing more people in one year than there are homicides in five years,” said the former detective, who did not want to be identified. “People dying from a product they are selling is not nonviolent offenses.”
Howard said he realizes that bail is granted if the defendant does not pose a risk of failing to appear at future court proceedings, but that the release of drug dealers is frustrating.
“This has happened too many times,” the sheriff said. “From a law enforcement perspective, people are dying.”
Lackawanna Police Capt. Joseph Leo also expressed dissatisfaction over what has often been described as the revolving door legal system.
“You catch a guy with all that dope, guns and money, and he’s back out on the street in a day? Come on. Any law enforcement agency would be upset with that,” Leo said.
And how many drug dealers are out there selling opiates that can cause overdoses and kill?
Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Chief Alan N. Rozansky says it is hard to estimate, but he believes there are more than enough to meet demands.
“We have no way of knowing. The demand is high so I’m certain there is no lack of supply,” Rozansky said. “When there is profit to be made at the expense of people with addiction issues, there is going to be someone profiting on their misfortune.”