DHS looking for increased authority to investigate drug crimes (2024)

It would only take a small change in legislation to allow more Homeland Security Investigations agents to investigate drug crimes without first getting the authority to do so from the Justice Department, a top Immigration and Customs Enforcement official told ABC News Thursday.

At the heart of the issue is law enforcement agencies' Title 21 authority -- which allows the federal government to investigate drug crimes. As it currently stands, Homeland Security Investigations has to ask the Justice Department first before investigating drug crimes.

Homeland Security Investigations is the Department of Homeland Security's law enforcement arm.

Patrick J. Lechleitner, deputy director and senior official performing the duties of the director of ICE, which is Homeland Security Investigations' parent agency, said the statue was written in the 1970s and doesn't allow for law enforcement to tackle a 21st century problem.

"I just think it would benefit the American people just having the authority just to pivot and spin quickly because we are currently hamstrung because, you know, we're delegated the authority," he said in an interview. "So, by having the authority fully delegated to us via legislation, literally we're talking like a few words changed, right? That would reflect the current environment in 2024."

He said that because of the delegated authority and the way the law is written, the agency now has only select agents work drug cases, and it can't give the authority to their task force officers.

"We are limited in scope to who can do that," he explained. "You would instantly add thousands and thousands of agents and officers to combat synthetic opioids and fentanyl and come and really add a lot more bearing to the fight. It's just common sense."

Lechleitner said the Homeland Security secretary should have the ability to delegate the authority to HSI without running into red tape.

"We're trying to fight very nimble, agile adversaries with antiquated rules and regulations and it's just not productive," he said.

There is legislation proposed in both the House and Senate to give the authority to HSI, but it hasn't gone anywhere since being introduced in September.

Louisiana GOP Rep. Clay Higgins' office said in a press release that " HSI agents are limited by a reliance on the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to investigate Title 21 crimes."

“Due to bureaucratic constraints, HSI lacks the independent statutory authority to enforce drug crimes and target these transnational criminal organizations," Higgins, one of the sponsors of the bill, said in September 2023 "It’s absurd. This common-sense bill adds thousands of highly skilled federal law enforcement officers to lead the fight against drug trafficking at no cost to the American taxpayers. We must work to keep deadly drugs out of our communities and keep America’s borders safe.”

The DEA has not responded to an ABC News request for comment.

Last year, more than 112,000 people died of fentanyl overdoses, and Lechleitner said by giving the authority to HSI to investigate drug crimes, it could potentially save lives.

"We're not looking to take anything away from anybody else, just add our resources to the fight. Allow us to take off the strap that puts our arm behind our back, allow us to be flexible enough to deal with these organizations in meaningful way with all of our partners, very closely aligned across the federal spectrum," he said. "We have joint investigations and we deconflict all of it. We collaborate with everyone. And we're just looking to try and do more so that we won't have another 112,000 deaths."

DHS looking for increased authority to investigate drug crimes (2024)

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