Local-federal task force investigations that resulted in hundreds of arrests have also spawned huge multi-defendant cases that are now clogging the docket.
The largest and most daunting of these cases involves 71 defendants who are allegedly connected to the La Familia drug cartel based in Mexico. La Familia controls most of the crystal methamphetamine market in the United States. Last October, authorities seized 174 pounds of crystal meth and arrested 35 people throughout metro Atlanta after raiding a house containing one of the cartel's labs in Lawrenceville.
The La Familia case is just one of several pending cases against defendants with ties to drug trafficking organizations. A second, 25-defendant case involves a conspiracy to smuggle methamphetamine and cocaine. Another 35-defendant case involves an Asian ring importing ecstasy through Canada.
In the past, local drug investigations typically resulted in cases with a handful of defendants, Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said.
Porter says his office is still trying to clear the logistic and budgetary hurdles associated with prosecuting these larger cases.
"We may be trying these cases in the auditorium," Porter said.
The total cost of the trials is virtually incalculable. Porter asked for $233,813 in county funds in 2008 to hire two new staffers and create a four-person drug task force.
Half of the defendants in the La Familia case also need court-appointed attorneys.
David Lipscomb, chairman of the Gwinnett County Indigent Defense Governing Committee, said each defendant is entitled to a separate attorney to avoid a conflict of interest.
"When you've got two defendants on one case, one of them always says it's the other one's fault," Lipscomb said. "You can't represent two people when they're both saying that."
The bills from appointed attorneys won't be submitted until the case is over. However, Lipscomb said an average criminal case costs between $2,500 to $3,500. That could amount to about $75,000 worth of bills from the 25 appointed attorneys in the La Familia case alone. That's not a huge portion of the county's $5 million indigent defense budget, but neither is it negligible, Lipscomb said.
There are also other hidden costs such as the time and manpower to coordinate courtroom space and court calendars, hear defense motions and shuffle defendants between the jail and the courthouse. Not to mention the cost of incarceration.
"Our biggest limitation is going to be court time and court space," Porter predicted. "It's going to cause a big bottleneck in the courts."
The backlog in Superior Court - which handles divorces, adoptions and some civil lawsuits in addition to all felony cases - has been whittled down over the past two years from about 9,000 pending cases to about 8,500.
"We're going to do the best we can to divide the cases in a way that minimizes workload," said Superior Court Judge Tom Davis.
The sheer volume of evidence in the La Familia case investigation presents a challenge for lawyers, too. The case includes 681 names, 1,667 telephone numbers, 202 financial accounts and 582 police reports.
Some defense attorneys question the rationale for indicting so many people in the La Familia case. They say authorities cast too wide a net at the outset, hoping to find defendants who would cut a deal and testify against their friends.
That has not happened.
"What we're finding with these Mexican cartel cases is they are not cooperating and they are demanding trials," Porter said.
"They are afraid that La Familia still has their families in Mexico."
Four women who pleaded guilty on Monday were not involved in drug trafficking and had no criminal records. They were arrested because they were staying in a house in Lawrenceville where methamphetamine was being stored and manufactured. The women were sentenced to spend 11 months in prison under a Georgia law that prohibits the presence of children during the manufacture of meth.
Defense attorney Richard Grossman represented one of the women in the case, 49-year-old Rocio Perez. He said Perez's 12-year-old son and five grandchildren were shunted into the state foster care system while she and her daughters spent eight months in jail, all at taxpayer expense.
"It seems like a funny way to spend money, unless you've got money to burn," Grossman said. "What is the point of arresting all these people that happen to just be there?"
Almost all the defendants in the La Familia case are illegal immigrants with federal immigration holds, so they are ineligible for bond.
Gwinnett County has seen an influx of drug traffickers who seek to blend into its large Hispanic population and use its location near metro Atlanta as a transshipment point.
But Gwinnett is not the only county handling prosecutions of federal drug cases. Three of the La Familia defendants are being prosecuted in Cobb County, two in Clayton, nine in DeKalb and four in Floyd. Six others will be tried in Florida.
Jack Killorin, who directs the Atlanta high-intensity drug task force, said his office is coordinating prosecutions with several local judicial circuits. Gwinnett has a lot because the cases often originate there and because Porter is a particularly aggressive district attorney, Killorin said. The county has two federally funded assistant district attorneys who were assigned there to help with drug cases.
Another reason a case might stay in local courts is because the warrants for wiretapping were obtained from local Superior Court judges, which is quicker than getting a warrant from a federal judge.
Authorities have to move swiftly or risk losing track of dope dealers, who are known to buy, trade and discard phones monthly to avoid detection.
Patrick Crosby, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta, said Tuesday that "in general they never talk about what kind of cases we take and why."
Killorin said it's preferable for large drug trafficking cases to be handled in federal courts, because stricter sentencing guidelines and no parole make for harsher punishments.
But the U.S. Attorney's Office is juggling so many cases that is helpful to have local prosecutors share the load.
"This is all fairly new as we've adjusted as a community to the presence of the cartels and our ability to get in on them and make these kinds of cases," Killorin said.