As drug investigations go, the indictment of a 30-year-old car salesman in Montgomery County Circuit Court last week was small potatoes.
Described as a "midlevel dealer" by authorities, Robert Timothy Briscuso was arrested with 12 ounces of cocaine, 4 ounces of marijuana and about $17,000 in cash. By no means a large seizure.
But county authorities attach some significance to Briscuso's indictment on drug possession charges last Thursday -- it is the first handed up by a special grand jury convened to investigate what police have described as sophisticated drug networks in the county dealing primarily in cocaine. Police said the drug trade has increased alarmingly in the county whose reputation for affluence provides a ready-made market for "fashionable" drugs such as cocaine.
According to police records, 189 persons were arrested for the sale, possession and manufacture of cocaine in Montgomery County last year, compared with 46 arrests for the same charges five years ago.
About 80 percent of the drug complaint calls police received last year were cocaine-related. Cocaine also accounted for nearly half the $621,449 worth of drugs seized by Montgomery County police last year, officials said.
To cut down on such traffic, the state's attorney's office has adopted a policy of bringing all persons convicted on drug charges before the grand jury, hoping their testimony will provide critical information into the workings of the alleged drug rings.
Those witnesses agree to testify as a condition of plea agreements regarding their sentences, said Deputy State's Attorney Matthew Campbell.
Prosecutors also call before the jury persons, like Briscuso, who have been arrested or persons who have not been arrested but are thought to have knowledge of drug deals. The sweeping powers of the grand jury, they said, can elicit testimony tracing the supply lines of the drug operations to their source.
"If I arrest somebody, I can question them, but they can refuse to tell me anything," said Sgt. Wayne Cleveland of the Montgomery County police narcotics unit. "If they do that before a grand jury, they are forced to face the wrath of a circuit court judge."
Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew Sonner said the grand jury had heard testimony from about 50 persons since it was empaneled last September. The term of the grand jury was due to expire three months later, but was extended to 12 months by Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Irma Raker.
Sonner said the grand jury had enabled police to gather "an enormous amount of intelligence on who the drug dealers are and who is financing their operations."
Cleveland said that cocaine use had grown because the availability of the drug had increased while prices remain constant, and abuse is no longer limited to the upper income brackets.
"Cocaine is everywhere," Cleveland said. "It continues to be our biggest problem. It used be just for the well-to-do, but not anymore."
Sonner agreed. "It's clearly bigger than most folks' perspective of the problem," he said. "We are trying to get past the level of the street sales. As we move up the pyramid, there will be fewer targets, but bigger fish."