For the first time since taking office in 2008, Attorney General Jack Conway will personally argue a case before the Kentucky Supreme. Here’s hoping he is effective enough to convince the justices on the state’s highest court of the rightness of his view. Not only is the outcome of this case important to Conway’s office, but it also is important to the successful prosecution of criminal cases throughout the state.
At issue is just what the elected attorney general can and cannot do in the prosecution of criminal cases. Specifically, the justices will consider under what circumstances the state attorney general’s office can participate in criminal investigations across the state.
Conway believes as the highest ranking elect law enforcement officer in Kentucky, the attorney general has broad powers to intervene in the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases throughout the commonwealth.
However, in two drug trafficking cases in eastern Kentucky, separate Court of Appeals panels have ruled the state attorney general has jurisdiction in local cases only when local officials or the governor request it.
Conway argues in court filings his office could be stripped of its power to fight different crimes if the rulings stand, and we think he is right.
Attorney general spokeswoman Allison Martin said the office has 766 pending cases that involve drug offenses, computer crimes, Medicaid fraud and public integrity allegations.
Sixteen attorneys general from other states as well as Kentucky prosecutors and law enforcement officers have filed briefs to support Conway.
“Sadly, these limitations would disempower the attorney general’s office, to the detriment of the citizens,” said Chris Cohron, the Warren County commonwealth’s attorney and legislative director of the state commonwealth’s attorneys association.
Emily Holt Rhorer, however, argued on behalf of convicted drug trafficker Floyd Grover Johnson that “criminal investigations need to be conducted by those who know the county in which the crime has taken place.”
“It is not disputed that the attorney general can, and even should, take an active interest in drug offenses across the commonwealth” but not without an invitation, Rhorer said.
Conway’s office says, the “paramount duty of the attorney general is to protect the public interest,” and that can’t be taken away by the courts or the legislature.
But Rhorer says to best serve the public, there needs to be a “model in which there are a limited number of agencies investigating a crime — so the right hand knows what the left is doing.”
Drug traffickers pay little or no attention to county boundaries and city limits, and they often are operating in several different jurisdictions at the same time. That makes charging perpetrators with similar crimes in different jurisdictions one of the most successful ways of assuring they are convicted of multiple crimes in different counties and making long prison sentences more likely.
To successfully prosecute multiple crimes in different cities and counties requires a single entity organizing and coordinating the investigation. Conway thinks his office should be that coordinating agency, and we agree. While the Kentucky State Police have power to investigate crimes in multiple counties, Conway’s office is better equipped to coordinate any investigations with the state police, local sheriff’s offices, local police and other agencies.
If Conway’s office is thwarted in its efforts to investigate criminal cases simply because no local officials asked for its help, it will be a step backward for effective law enforcement in Kentucky.