Dylan Hightower, left, investigator with the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, uses a digital pointer to highlight a phone record during a jury trial, as Solicitor Duffie Stone reviews the record for the jury. FOURTEENTH CIRCUIT SOLICITOR’S OFFICE

Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone began his career 30 years ago prosecuting drug cases in Richland County. Back then, if a narcotics team raided a suspected dealer’s home, they might expect to find drugs and guns.

But if they found the dealers’ notebooks – in which they recorded their purchases and sales – the discovery was a game-changer that could bring down an entire ring.

Today, the big score on a drug raid isn’t a paper notebook; it’s the dealers’ cellphones, which can contain their contacts, evidence of their interaction with other suspects, and even photographic evidence of crimes.

Stone calls the development of technology and its use by lawbreakers the biggest change in the criminal justice system during his time as a prosecutor.

“There are all types of technology that didn’t exist when I started as a prosecutor,” Stone said. “Because of that, the way law enforcement catches criminals and the way the courts prosecute has also changed.”

To combat crime, the New York Police Department in the late 1990s began using a computer comparison statistics program (COMPSTAT) as a data management tool, combining crime analysis and geographic information. This information demonstrated to police that, often, the same offenders were committing crimes all over the place, avoiding repeated charges for similar offenses because the various precincts were not comparing notes.

The introduction of intelligence-led policing had such an impact on reducing crime in New York, it began to spread to other cities.

Stone and other prosecutors across the country are now employing a similar strategy in their prosecution. The use of “intel” has shifted the focus of prosecution from the types of crimes being committed to the types of people who are committing them. Among the benefits are better prosecution and more appropriate sentencing, Stone said.

The 14th Judicial Circuit covers Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties, an area of 3,200 square miles. The percentage of criminal acts is carried out by a fairly set group of individuals, according to Stone.

He cites the “Pareto Principle,” a concept named for a 19th century Italian economist who discovered 80 percent of the country’s land was owned by 20 percent of its people. This 80/20 rule applies in a variety of other disciplines, Stone said, including crime in the 14th Circuit, where roughly 80 percent of criminal offenses are committed by roughly 20 percent of hardened “career criminals.”

To help identify those criminals, Stone hired a crime analyst in 2011 who had been certified and trained by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. Investigator Dylan Hightower helped Stone launch his new intelligence unit, expanding the use of evidence-gathering techniques from fingerprints and DNA to modern technology.

Law enforcement agencies from across the 14th Circuit – from the Bluffton Police Department to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) – work closely with prosecutors on cases.

In South Carolina, law enforcement agencies are the only entities that can file criminal charges, and they need only demonstrate probable cause to secure an arrest warrant. Once the arrest has been made, however, case files and evidence are turned over to prosecutors for review. Stone’s office will indict and prosecute only the charges it believes can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, a higher burden of proof.

The work of Hightower’s intel unit is often crucial to reaching that higher bar – and, perhaps as importantly, helping determine instances in which there is insufficient evidence to proceed or evidence that the accused didn’t commit the crime, after all.

Stone said the intel unit serves three primary purposes.

“First, it tells us who we are dealing with when the police arrest someone. Our staff comes in early each morning and by 7:30 a.m. collects information from all five of our jails,” he said. “We know everyone who is arrested for General Sessions appearances. Are they gang members, career criminals? Are they people who may have never been arrested before? Do they have another case on our docket?”

Stone said that by the time the individual appears at the bond hearing, everything that is known throughout the entire circuit is in front of the prosecutor charged with trying the case, whether this is a first-time offense or another in a long chain of crimes big or small that are catching up to the arrestee.

“If you stab your neighbor and get arrested, I promise you we will know all about you by 8 a.m. the next morning,” he said.

The second thing the intel unit does is help law enforcement.

Hightower has access to law-enforcement databases, among other tools, that help him identify defendants and their associates. He also directs a regional gang task force and works with law enforcement agencies throughout the state to share information.

“Part of that work is analyzing information,” Stone said. “We get requests from almost every law enforcement agency in our circuit, and we deal with almost 20 of them.”

The third purpose of the intel unit is to help prosecutors prepare a case for court.

“We can present the information in a way the jury can understand,” Stone said. “Everyone watches TV and there is no excuse now not to use the technology. It has made it easier to prosecute the cases. It has also made it easier for law enforcement to catch them. It is also necessary. Even if I didn’t like intelligence-led prosecution, I’d still have to use it.”

Maj. Bob Bromage, spokesman for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, said the technology has vastly improved over the years.

“It plays a prominent role in solving crime. We have DNA technology and DNA analysis. We also have access to state and federal crimes labs for different analyses. There is firearm examination, latent prints, and witness testimony,” Bromage said. “It’s not prudent to reveal all the technology that is available because it can provide the upper hand to the criminal element.”

Stone had seen the effectiveness of one of the biggest intelligence units in Manhattan, headed by District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. Recognizing the effectiveness, Stone took the information and whittled it down to fit more modest prosecutors’ offices in his January 2020 white paper “Intelligence-Led Prosecution in a Medium-Sized Office.”

“If I have $8 million, I can build [Manhattan’s], but this is how it works in everyday prosecutors’ offices,” Stone said. “Every prosecutor’s office within the next 10 years will have an intelligence unit, and I’m going to help them every way I can. The good news is that technology can not only be used to aid criminal enterprises; it can also be used to stop them.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.