Students get lesson on federal drug prosecutions

By Joe Beck

Federal authorities left their courtrooms for classrooms Friday to deliver an anti-drug message to Shenandoah County teens.

There was no one to be arrested, no one to be sentenced among the eighth graders who listened to speakers, watched videos and asked questions about how drug offenders are prosecuted in the federal court system.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe, who conducts legal proceedings in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg, said he was visiting Peter Muhlenberg Middle School to reach students with a friendly warning about the dire consequences of running afoul of federal drug laws.

Sentences for trafficking can reach mandatory minimums of 20 years or more, especially if the seller of an illegal drug is linked to a buyer’s overdose death. Law enforcement officials with the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force have counted well over 20 heroin overdose deaths in each of the last two years.

“I can tell you we have six cases in federal court in Harrisonburg right now where they just dropped dead,” Hoppe said of overdose victims.

Others appearing with Hoppe at Muhlenberg, Signal Knob and North Fork middle schools included Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Wright; Special Agent Thomas Hickey of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and Lauren Smith, Hoppe’s law clerk.

Hoppe said in an interview that middle school students rarely appear in federal drug cases. State juvenile and domestic relations courts are far more likely destinations for the youngest drug offenders.

Hoppe said he wanted students to learn about the risks involved in breaking drug laws before they reach an age at which they could be subject to penalties far harsher than those reserved for those in their early teens.

“It’s a time when we can get in and help people in making good decisions before it becomes an issue that’s right in their faces,” Hoppe said.

Wright, who was in court Thursday for a case in which two people died of a heroin overdoses, instructed students on some of the finer points of laws covering drug conspiracies. Those who don’t sell drugs directly can still go to prison if they help a dealer by driving a car or touching a 1-gram packet of drugs during a transaction, Wright said.

“You could still be on the hook for the full amount of drugs in that conspiracy,” Wright said.

Hickey asked the students to think about how a five-year prison sentence could affect their lives.

“Can you give up that much time of your life to sell drugs?” Hickey asked. “Is it worth it?”

Hoppe said he was pleased with the keen interest students showed during his presentation.

“The kids were engaged and asked a lot of questions,” Hoppe said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com