Federal Attorney Uses Left Over Funds to ‘Choke' Guns & Drugs in Pennsylvania

The city's top federal prosecutor is teaming up with district attorneys in four outlying counties in hopes of "choking" the flow of guns and drugs into and through the 25-county western Pennsylvania federal court district.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton told The Associated Press he will be holding news conferences Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with prosecutors in Cambria, Erie, Lawrence and Washington counties to announce the new program.

Hickton is using $44,000 in leftover Project Safe Neighborhoods grant money so the district attorneys can each pay an assistant prosecutor to work part-time as a special federal prosecutor on major gun and drug cases.

Hickton picked those counties 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, who will be at the first news conference with Hickton on Tuesday in Washington, Pennsylvania, 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.

Vittone's county contains the junction of Interstates 70 and 79, the major east-west and north-south arteries in the western part of the state. Erie sits at the junction of I-79 and I-90 _ a major road connecting the region to Cleveland, Detroit and other areas known to supply drugs and weapons that runs into New York State. Lawrence County includes I-376, which runs north-south and connects I-80 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the two major east-west arteries in the state.

Cambria County has no interstates, but is crisscrossed by three major U.S. highways, 22, 219 and 422.

District attorneys in Erie and Lawrence counties will announce the program with Hickton in separate news conferences in Erie and New Castle, respectively, on Wednesday. Hickton will make a final stop in Ebensburg, and meet with the Cambria County DA there on Thursday.

Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri said the program is a "dream come true" as his county - and the city of Erie, in particular - deals with escalating gang-related violence.

"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.

The program will run for one year and, if it's effective, Hickton said he'll apply for more grant money to keep it going in the future. Each of the counties will receive $11,000 to help pay their assistant prosecutors to work on federal cases.

"It's the hallmark of what I've been trying to do for the last four years: instill a spirit of cooperation among all the law enforcement agencies," Vittone said. "What (Hickton's) proposing here really enhances that."

District attorneys in Cambria and Lawrence counties couldn't immediately be reached for comment Monday.

"It's a strategic alignment, a geographic alignment," Hickton said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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