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A ruse to smuggle drugs into Arlington jail caught an employee of the Public Defender’s Office in its crosshairs

Jail entrance at the Arlington County Detention Facility (file photo)

An employee of the Arlington County Public Defender’s Office appears to have been duped into smuggling drugs into the local jail.

An apparent misunderstanding over recent changes to the delivery of personal mail could have contributed to the advocate’s arrest, according to her boss, Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood.

Last month, a 32-year-old woman was arrested and charged with unauthorized delivery in jail in connection with an offense that allegedly occurred in mid-February, per court records. The employee reportedly delivered papers to the jail in her capacity as an investigator for the Public Defender’s Office, but the papers — unbeknownst to her — had been soaked in drugs. The delivery also circumvented a new jail policy.

The case was transferred to the Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney to prosecute.

“We had to get a special prosecutor for that because of a potential conflict of interest,” Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti said. “Loudoun handled that and it would be inappropriate for me to have been involved in the decision making.”

Two sources confirmed to ARLnow that the court quickly granted a prosecutor’s motion to dismiss the charges. This was done on the grounds that she lacked knowledge that she delivered contraband to the jail. Loudoun’s Commonwealth’s Attorney did not respond to requests for comment before publication time.

Charges are still pending for another woman in connection to this case. Cassandra Bertrand, 30, was arrested and charged with the distribution of and conspiracy to distribute Schedule I/II drugs. She is also charged with two counts of delivering drugs to a prisoner.

When asked about this case, a spokeswoman for the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail, provided the names and charges for the two defendants but declined to comment further.

“To ensure the integrity of the ongoing criminal investigation and prosecution, additional details are not available for release,” spokeswoman Amy Meehan said.

Closing the mail drug smuggling loophole

Like detention facilities around the country, the Arlington County Detention Facility is combatting a relatively new way of smuggling drugs inside: mail.

Personal correspondence is dipped in or sprayed with a synthetic drug and sent to the inmate, who smokes it or tears up the paper and sells bits to others.

This method has been around for several years, per a 2016 Washington Post article, but a recent spate of such smuggling attempts have received media attention this year. There were instances in Chicago, in Massachusetts and on Riker’s Island in New York City, where love letters and cards from children were soaked in fentanyl.

In the Arlington case, law enforcement sources tell ARLnow the letter was coated in a synthetic cannabinoid called nicknamed “K2” or “Spice.” The chemical name, ADB-Butinaca, is identified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I drug.

“The jail is aware this is a new trend and as of February 1st, we use a third-party digital mail center to scan all incoming, personal mail which is then forwarded to the inmates’ tablets,” Meehan said.

Per a notice she shared with ARLnow, all mail addressed to inmates must be sent to a post office box in Missouri. The policy for legal mail, however, has not changed.

Legal mail is a broad category that can encompass papers that — to the Sheriff’s Office — look an awful lot like personal mail. In this case, printed copies of photos were shared with the client because they would be entered into the record in the inmate’s upcoming court appearances.

The photos, which are called “mitigation materials” in the legal community, are intended to humanize the person facing a potential sentence. But it may not have looked that way to the Sheriff’s Office.

“My understanding is the Sheriff thought someone in my office was deliberately trying to circumvent a new policy, when the fact is we had no idea there was a new policy,” Haywood said.

Meehan confirmed that the Sheriff’s Office did not tell his office about the new process for handling personal mail.

“The notice was published widely throughout the detention facility for all inmates to know and was put on our website but it was not sent to the Commonwealth’s Attorney or Public Defender’s Office… because the process for receiving legal mail at the detention facility has not changed,” she said.

Haywood said the last thing his office wants to do is contribute to drug use issues in the jail.

“With the amount of people having behavioral health crises in the jail, you don’t want to make the crisis worse and have clients at risk of dying because they’re getting pieces of paper with fentanyl on it,” Haywood said.

Between July 2022 and mid-February, jail staff initiated drug withdrawal protocols 188 times and found contraband or drugs 32 times, per a presentation to the Arlington County Board.

The chief public defender said the smuggling trend is upsetting because it exploits the good will of advocates who are trying to build trust with their clients and humanize them in court proceedings.

“You have advocates who have gone to the wall for their clients to help them believe there’s hope and there will be a future and you’ll have a life — even in prison,” he said. “If someone wants to exploit that goodwill, that hard and thorough work of getting into client-centered mitigation work, apparently they can.”

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