York DA discusses heroin, cyber crimes, changes at his office

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday said his first six months as DA have been busy ones — restructuring his office, beefing up enforcement of cyber crimes and testifying before a congressional subcommittee about the heroin epidemic.

He's also adding six more legs to the York County Drug Task Force in the form of a drug-sniffing K-9 and a human handler.

Assistant District Attorney David Sunday, right, of the York County Heroin Task Force, announces William Penn senior Sherby Hector, 17, as one of two winners for submitting artwork for the task force's billboard contest following the York County Commissioners' weekly meeting, for the first time held outside of the Administration Building, at William Penn Senior High School in York City, Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Sunday said many of the changes he has made directly affect "the turning of the wheels of justice."

But he noted that he could disappear from the DA's at any time and it would continue to run without him.

"We have such professional people that are such caring public servants that it is truly a blessing and an honor to work with them every day," he told The York Dispatch on Thursday, June 21, in a Facebook Live interview.  "I'm just very pleased and impressed with what we have."

On Tuesday, June 19, Sunday testified before members of Congress who had traveled to Harrisburg to hear about how the national opioid epidemic has affected southcentral Pennsylvania.

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Dillsburg, is chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency, and he brought the subcommittee to Harrisburg to discuss "Opioids in the Homeland."

Restructuring: Sunday said he has created general trial teams that take cases before one judge and deal with the same police departments rather than having multiple specialized units that often jump from courtroom to courtroom.

"That allows for a much more effective, streamlined process of prosecuting cases," he said, and gives prosecutors "a wider breadth of expertise in different areas."

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday

It also means police departments deal with the same prosecutors over the long term, which increases communication and collaboration, according to the DA.

Sunday also created a grant-writing position, which he called a "monumentally important" task.

"(We will) try to find as many applicable, usable grants as possible so that we can leverage the different partnerships we have ... to bring money back to York County," he said. "We've applied for many, many grants up to this point. We don't have the results yet, but there's one in particular I'm very enthusiastic about."

That's a Department of Justice grant that would pay for two full-time county detectives who would focus entirely on investigating cases of drug delivery resulting in death, according to Sunday.

New positions: He created a new position — chief of training and chief of appeals — and hired former prosecutor Scott McCabe to fill it. McCabe is tasked with staying abreast of changing laws and training prosecutors on a near-daily basis, Sunday said.

Prosecutor Seth Bortner, who's been with the DA's office about a dozen years, has been promoted to chief of trials and oversees the five trial teams, according to Sunday.

Sunday also has retooled how the York County detectives do their job.

Prior to Sunday taking office, the county detectives "were sort of their own entity," he said, and had little interaction with prosecutors.

Now, each trial team has been assigned a county detective, whose desk has been moved next to that trial team to foster closer collaboration, he said.

There are about 88 employees in the DA's office, 30 of whom are prosecutors, Sunday said. There are about 10 county detectives.

York County District Attorney David Sunday talks about the possible criminal charges stemming from threats of school violence during a press conference at Springettsbury Township Police Department, Wednesday, February 21, 2018. John A. Pavoncello

Cyber crime: Sunday said that in January, he directed county detectives to do a full study to determine York County's law-enforcement needs regarding cyber crimes.

"In today's world, probably 90 percent of our crimes may somehow involve a cellphone or computer," he said, and the volume of such crimes has exploded over the past decade.

Historically, he said, police and prosecutors have relied on state police and federal experts to analyze that type of evidence.

"We're at a point now where we can no longer rely on other (agencies) to help us," because of the sheer volume of cyber crimes, Sunday said.

"So what do we need? Do we need a civilian computer analyst to work at the DA's office? The answer is most likely yes," he said. "Do we need another detective to work on what we call cyber tips ... through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children? Yes, we do."

Sunday said he also needs to know what equipment York County might need to better investigate cyber crimes, what training municipal police officers need to conduct those investigations and what training prosecutors might need "to be able to effectively communicate" with juries about cyber-related crimes.

More:York prosecutor runs for DA, helped start heroin task force

"(The) volume of these cases is so high ... and the criminal expertise is also so high that we, in my opinion, have lagged behind," Sunday said. "And that is unacceptable."

Ongoing epidemic: Sunday said he remains committed to ending the opioid epidemic in York County and said that anecdotal evidence appears to show the number of new heroin users is slowing down.

But those who are already addicted are buying heroin that has become increasingly lethal, because it's being cut with fentanyl-type drugs.

In 2013, none of the people who fatally overdosed on opioids in York County did so with fentanyl or heroin laced with fentanyl, he said. So far this year, that number has increased to 90 percent, he said.

"So that leaves us with this pool of people ... who are in the throes of addiction that are now buying heroin that is exponentially more deadly than ... back in 2013," Sunday said, adding that the epidemic in York County would be "nightmarishly worse" if Narcan wasn't in such wide use.

Chief deputy prosecutor Dave Sunday (right) announces that York City Police and the York County Drug Task Force have reconciled after a more than four-year split. York City Police Chief Wes Kahley (middle) and York County Sheriff Rich Keuerleber (left) look on.
(Liz Evans Scolforo photo)

Every police department here provides their officers with Narcan, which reverses the effects of opioids.

"From police departments alone ... there have been verified well over 400 (overdose) reversals (since 2014)," Sunday said. "And that doesn't even include (overdose victims saved by) EMTs or physicians or firefighters."

Tweaking needed: He noted that Narcan — generic name naloxone — is just one tool in the fight, and that many stakeholders believe laws need to be tweaked so that an opioid addict saved by Narcan more than once would somehow be forced into detox.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow parents or police to have someone who has nearly overdosed repeatedly to be involuntarily committed for treatment, according to Sunday. Once detoxed, patients would speak with certified counselors, the hope being they would be more receptive to going into treatment.

"It is critical that we treat that group of people," Sunday said, because "close to 80 percent of our crime is either directly or tangentially related to drug abuse."

Dogged crime fighter: The York County Drug Task Force — run out of the DA's office and composed of police officers from around York County as well as county detectives — will be growing by two crime fighters, the district attorney said.

As part of Give Local York, the Rotary Club of York raised money and purchased a drug-detection dog, which it has donated to the task force, Sunday said. The dog, which has not yet been officially named, is being trained.

York County Sheriff Richard Keuerleber has directed one of his deputies to serve with the task force as the dog's handler, according to Sunday.

"We're really excited about this," he said, adding that a drug-detection dog is a critical tool for investigating drug trafficking — a tool that York County currently doesn't have.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.