Robert L. Smith is behind bars, accused of selling heroin, and a group of families who have lost loved ones in the opioid-heroin epidemic want him to stay there.
They fear that will not happen, that he will post bail and continue to sell opioids.
That fear is based on the fact that after pleading guilty to selling opioids in August, a judge allowed him to remain out on bail to await sentencing. And while awaiting sentencing, he was accused of selling opioids again.
“We were all surprised that he was back out on the streets and that he had the opportunity to sell more drugs,” said Debra Smith, whose son died of an opioid overdose last year. "Under no circumstances should anyone be released to continue to flood our streets with lethal substances."
Robert Smith is not the first drug dealer to end up under public scrutiny after being released on bail only to be rearrested.
Dellsean Hamilton was released on bail hours after he was charged with possession of 2,100 packs of fentanyl-laced heroin in July 2015. At the time, he also was free on bail from other drug charges earlier that same year in Cheektowaga. The drugs he was selling were linked to at least one fatal overdose, authorities said. Hamilton eventually pleaded guilty to state drug charges and was arrested on federal drug charges as well. He is currently being held without bail.
Robert Smith has not been linked to any opioid deaths, but members of the Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force say bail should be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it difficult for accused drug dealers to be released while their cases are pending in the criminal justice system.
And if they are convicted, bail should be revoked, according to Debra Smith.
Robert Smith pleaded guilty Aug. 17 to two felony charges of criminal sale of fentanyl stemming from a raid earlier this year at his apartment on Gillette Avenue. Police in February seized 150 bags of fentanyl - a potent opioid that is figuring into the epidemic that has claimed as many as 273 lives so far this year in Erie County.
After Smith pleaded guilty, State Supreme Court Justice Christopher J. Burns allowed him to remain free on $50,000 bail until his Nov. 9 sentencing.
It is not unusual for judges to allow a convicted individual to remain free on bail before sentencing. The purpose of bail is to ensure the individual shows up for court appearances, and Smith has not missed any of his appearances. Bail can only be denied if the individual appears to be a flight risk.
Erie County Assistant District Attorney Paul J. Williams III asked Burns to increase the bail to $200,000 cash or bond. The judge refused and set bail at $50,000 cash or bond and Smith was able to make bail.
Twelve days ago, Robert Smith was arrested outside a relative’s apartment on Arkansas Street and accused of possessing more than a half ounce of heroin with intent to sell the drug. He was initially held without bail by City Court Judge Debra L. Givens.
But at a felony hearing Thursday, she determined there was enough evidence to present the case to a grand jury and she set bail at $25,000 cash or property. In order to be released on a property bail, the property must be worth twice the cash amount set by a judge.
Smith has been unable to post the bail set by Givens.
Later this week, Williams is expected to ask Burns to revoke the $50,000 bail and reschedule sentencing sooner to ensure Smith does not make bail. Smith faces a sentence of anywhere from six years to 15 years.
Debra Smith says she and others who have lost loved ones in the opioid epidemic plan to attend Robert Smith’s sentencing.
“We want to make the judiciary aware that we are very supportive of their decisions to protect our community and ensure the safety of our loved ones,” Debra Smith said. “We want to see the predatory drug dealers who are killing our loved ones removed from our community so we can put our resources into recovery and healing for those addicted.”
Jeremy D. Schwartz, the attorney representing Robert Smith, pointed out that his client "is presumed innocent" on the latest charges. Schwartz also said he intends to ask Burns to consider a fair sentence for Smith on the charges he has pleaded guilty to.
"I'm going to ask Judge Burns to consider Mr. Smith as a person. He does have children he takes care of and he has had a difficult youth," Schwartz said. "For most of his adult life, he has been arrest free."