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Feature: Guilty Pleas Only the Beginning in Aftermath of Atlanta "Drug Raid" Killing of 92-Year Old

Last Thursday, two Atlanta narcotics officers pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges in the shooting death of an elderly woman during a botched drug raid, but that is just the beginning in what looks to be an ever-expanding investigation into misconduct in the Atlanta narcotics squad. A federal investigation is already underway, and yesterday, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, called on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to launch a thorough investigation of issues raised by the case, including police misconduct, the use of confidential informants, arrest quotas, and the credibility of police officials.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/kathrynjohnston.jpg
Kathryn Johnston
Things began to unravel for the Atlanta Police Department's 16-man street narcotics team on November 21, when three Atlanta narcs broke into the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston using a "no-knock" warrant that claimed drug sales had taken place there. The elderly Johnston responded to the intruders dressed in plain clothes by firing one shot from an old pistol, which missed the officers. The narcs responded with a barrage of bullets, firing 39 shots, five or six of which hit Johnston, who died shortly afterward.

Since then, investigators have found that in the Johnston case:

  • The narcotics officers planted drugs to arrest a suspected drug dealer, who in turn pointed them toward Johnston's residence.
  • The narcotics officers lied on their search warrant application, saying that a confidential informant had bought drugs at that address when that did not happen.
  • The narcotics officers lied on their search warrant application, saying the house was occupied by a large man who employed surveillance cameras.
  • The narcotics officers planted marijuana in Johnston's basement after they shot her in order to bolster their case and impugn her reputation.
  • The narcotics officers asked another confidential informant to lie for them after the fact and say he had bought drugs at Johnston's residence.

But that confidential informant, Alexis White, instead went to the feds with his story (and this week, he went to Washington, DC, to talk to congressional leaders about snitching), and the fabric of lies woven by the Atlanta narcs rapidly unraveled. Last Wednesday, three of them, Officers Gregg Junnier, Jason Smith, and Arthur Tesler, were indicted on numerous state charges, including murder, as well as federal civil rights charges. The following day, Junnier and Smith pleaded guilty to a state charge of manslaughter, with sentencing to be postponed until after the federal investigation is complete. They face up to 10 years on the manslaughter charge and up to life in prison on the federal civil rights charge.

But the problems in the Atlanta narcotics squad run deeper than one incident of misconduct. According to federal investigators, what the Atlanta narcs did during the botched Johnston raid was business as usual.

"Junnier and other officers falsified affidavits for search warrants to be considered productive officers and to meet APD's performance targets," according to a federal exhibit released Thursday. "They believed that these ends justified their illegal 'Fluffing' or falsifying of search warrants. Because they obtained search warrants based on unreliable and false information, [the officers] had on occasion searched residences where there were no drugs and the occupants were not drug dealers."

Cutting corners, though, can have serious consequences. As prosecutors noted, once the narcs had received a tip there were drugs at Johnston's residence, Officer Junnier said they could get a confidential informant to make a buy there to ensure there actually were drugs at that location. "Or not," Smith allegedly responded.

At a news conference last Thursday, FBI Atlanta Special Agent in Charge Greg Jones called the officers' conduct "deplorable." In an ominous addendum, Jones added that the agency will pursue "additional allegations of corruption that other Atlanta police officers may have engaged in similar conduct."

US Attorney David Nahmias said Johnston's death was "almost inevitable" because of such widespread activity and vowed a far-reaching investigation into departmental practices. He said he expects to find other cases where officers lied or relied on bad information. "It's a very ongoing investigation into just how wide the culture of misconduct extends," Nahmias said. "We'll dig until we can find whatever we can."

And now, House Judiciary Committee head Rep. Conyers wants to ensure that the feds dig deep. In a letter released yesterday, Conyers told Attorney General Gonzales:

"There are several key issues raised by the Johnston case: police misconduct (falsifying information and excessive use of force); misuse of confidential informants; potentially negative impact of arrest quotas and performance measures; and the integrity and credibility of law enforcement officials. We are particularly concerned about the misuse of confidential informants. The reliability of confidential informants used in narcotics cases is often compromised because they are cooperating with law enforcement in order to extricate themselves from criminal charges. The absence of corroboration requirements for information obtained through confidential informants leaves room for abuse. All these factors can have the effect of eroding public confidence in the criminal justice system.

"We are concerned that the Atlanta incident may be indicative of a systemic problem within the Atlanta Police Department. Additionally, we are disturbed that the actions of the Atlanta Police Department may be a reflection of conduct used in other jurisdictions throughout this country. Significantly, the number of "no knock raids" has increased from three thousand in 1981 to more than fifty thousand in 2005."

Former New Jersey narcotics officer and current head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Jack Cole shares Conyers' concerns. "I think this kind of thing is going on across the country," he told Drug War Chronicle. "If anyone really dug into this, you would find similar things in a lot of departments. It's about using a war on drugs metaphor. When you have a war, you need an enemy, someone despicable, so you can do whatever you want to them," he said. "We train our police to feel like they have to win at any cost because it's a war."

Maybe, just maybe, the federal investigation into the Atlanta narcs will morph into the kind of hearings on drug war policing that are long, long overdue. If not, at least Kathryn Johnston has won a measure of justice.

Feature: Blacks, Hispanics More Likely to Be Searched at Traffic Stops -- But That Is Not Proof of Racial Profiling, Justice Department Claims

While police stop white, black, and Hispanic drivers at similar rates, members of the latter two groups are much more likely to be subjected to a roadside search, according to a new report on citizen-police encounters from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). But BJS refused to conclude that the difference in search rates is caused by racial profiling, saying other factors could be at play.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/njturnpike.jpg
"While the survey found that black and Hispanic drivers were more likely than whites to be searched, such racial disparities do not necessarily demonstrate that police treat people differently based on race or other demographic characteristics," BJS noted in a press release announcing the report. "This study did not take into account other factors that might explain these disparities."

Civil liberties advocates contend that the report is flawed and that BJS is pulling its shots. They point not only to missing data in the current report, but also to political interference in the Justice Department on earlier reports, including a controversial 2005 report on racial profiling that was buried after then BJS head Lawrence Greenfeld refused to remove information about racial profiling. Greenfeld was shortly after forced from his position.

The current report studied police-citizen interactions in 2005 and found that 43 million Americans, or 19% of the population, had some form of interaction with a police officer that year. Some 18 million of them were for traffic stops.

In those traffic stops, only 3.6% of white drivers pulled over were searched, compared to 8.8% of Hispanics and 9.5% of blacks. Blacks were also more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested during a traffic stop and nearly four times as likely to report being subjected to force, while Hispanics faced a 50% higher chance than whites of being arrested and were nearly twice as likely to be subjected to force.

Even when police searched motorists' vehicles, they were unlikely to find anything. Fully 88% of all vehicle searches resulted in no contraband found. In previous reports, BJS published figures on "hit rates," or successful searches, by motorists' race, but it did not include that critical information in this year's report.

"The omission of data on hit rate by race is a glaring omission," said Scott Morgan, associate director of the Fourth Amendment education group Flex Your Rights. "Racial profiling apologists will first argue that there is no such thing as racial profiling, and when you refute that, they revert to the argument that profiling is justified by higher levels of criminal activity," he told Drug War Chronicle. "Hit rate data is crucial to refuting the argument that this discriminatory treatment of minorities is justified by their behavior."

Previous versions of the BJS report have found that police were less -- not more -- likely to find drugs or other contraband in vehicles driven by minority drivers than by white drivers. The lack of such data in the current report is a serious problem, said Reginald Shuford, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's Racial Justice Program.

"Many studies have concluded that despite being more likely to be searched by police, African American and Hispanic drivers are actually less likely to be carrying contraband," Shuford told the Chronicle. "This report is silent on that issue, but this is data that absolutely must be recorded and analyzed."

Shuford also scoffed at BJS's refusal to qualify its findings as evidence of racial profiling. "The numbers speak for themselves," he said. "Most people would look at these numbers and conclude that racial bias and profiling are alive and well. BJS's contention that they are unable to conclude that this is racial profiling is not particularly compelling," he said.

But BJS statistican Matthew Durose, one of the report's authors, defended the report's lack of hit rate data and limited conclusions. "The study was based on a sample size that is too small to form reliable estimates," he told the Chronicle. "In our sample of 64,000 respondents, 189 were stopped and searched by police, and only 30 cases involved African American drivers stopped and searched. We don't really have the numbers to form reliable estimates," he said.

As for calling it racial profiling, Durose said there was insufficient information. "There are countless circumstances that could explain these searches, and we don't have the officers' reasons for conducting them, so we are not going to say we have proven racial profiling. We don't take that leap. What we have done is to alert the public that this is the survey data."

But the critics were not mollified. "We think that the report demonstrates clear and significant racial disparities in what happens to motorists after they are stopped by law enforcement," said the ACLU's Shuford. "If BJS doesn't have a big enough sample size, they need to get one. This is really critical information, and it is likely it would be consistent with earlier studies, which found that African Americans and Hispanics are no more likely to be carrying contraband than whites."

"BJS released a report that shows that racial profiling exists, and then they deny it," said Flex Your Rights' Morgan. "And then they omit the hit rates. And they released this on a Sunday. The absence of critical data, the decision to go for a Sunday release, the burying of the last report on racial profiling -- all this paints a picture of a Justice Department not any more interested in talking about racial profiling than Congress forces it to be. These reports are congressionally mandated, and I get the sense that we wouldn't have them at all -- even in flawed form -- if Congress didn't make them do it."

BJS says it cannot produce evidence of racial profiling. The critics say it's because it doesn't want to. Meanwhile, another black guy is probably getting pulled over and searched on the New Jersey Turnpike right now.

Racial Profiling: Another DOJ Cover-up?

A new report from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) shows that black and Hispanic drivers are significantly more likely to be searched, arrested and subjected to the use of force than whites.

It was initially encouraging to see the DOJ release this year's report without any shenanigans considering what happened last time:
The Justice Department intervened, insisting that BJS not publicize that nasty part about minority drivers being more likely to be searched, arrested, handcuffed, beaten, maced, or bitten by dogs.

A conflict emerged in the course of which BJS Director Lawrence A. Greenfeld was removed from his post. His attempt to provide the media with an unbiased summary of his agency’s findings was apparently too much for his superiors at the DOJ. Ultimately, no press release was sent out, and the study was unceremoniously posted in the bowels of the BJS website.
Perhaps it's a sign of progress and lessons learned that DOJ declined to bury this year's equally shocking findings. After all, covering up racial profiling is one way – however shameful and undignified – of admitting that it exists.

Yet, upon closer inspection, we find that this year's BJS report omits the single most important piece of information contained in the previous report: hit-rate data showing whether minorities were more likely to be hiding contraband.
Likelihood of search finding criminal evidence

Searches of black drivers or their vehicles were less likely to find criminal evidence (3.3%) than searches of white drivers (14.5%), and somewhat less likely than searches of Hispanic drivers
(13%).
This revealing fact fundamentally undermines the sole premise from which police agencies and others have sought to defend ongoing racial disparities such as those revealed this week. Consider the following hypothetical (but really quite typical) debate with a racial profiling apologist:
RPA: There's no such thing as racial profiling. Cops don't even know the race of the driver until after they've made the stop.

Me: Who gets pulled over is only one part of the equation. The data show that minority drivers are more likely to be searched, arrested, and subjected to the use of force after being stopped…

RPA: Well, if that's true it's because those people committed more crimes.

Me: Actually, the data show that searches of white people are more likely to produce evidence of a crime.

RPA: Wow, you must have gotten straight A's at the Al Sharpton Academy of Social Science.

Me: This data comes from the Department of Justice.

RPA: Hang on, I'm getting a call. Oh yeah, gotta take this. Good talk.
DOJ was able to provide a racial breakdown of hit-rates in its previous report (the one it buried) thus the omission of such information from this week's report is highly conspicuous. And of course, DOJ's previous attempts to cover up racial profiling data attest to the agency's lack of candor and credibility on this issue.

The larger question then is why the Department of Justice seeks to downplay racial profiling in the first place. BJS reports primarily reflect the behavior of local law-enforcement agencies, not the feds. The only real embarrassment here for DOJ is its ongoing failure to provide adequate monitoring of police practices at the state level. An activist such as myself may be keenly aware of DOJ's abdication of this responsibility, but I suspect that most people are not.

In any case, we'd be hard pressed to generate any further controversy surrounding cover-ups at the Department of Justice this season. Instead, let's do our best to make sure everyone knows how to handle police encounters. No matter how thorough, a traffic stop report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics won't save your ass on the New Jersey turnpike anyway.

Location: 
United States

Futile drug war ignores target: Safety

Location: 
Atlanta, GA
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
URL: 
http://www.ajc.com/opinion/content/opinion/tucker/stories/2007/05/01/0502edtuck.html

Medical Marijuana Shop, Home Searched By Feds

Location: 
Bakersfield, CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
KERO-TV 23 (CA)
URL: 
http://www.turnto23.com/news/13234122/detail.html

Butte's medical marijuana growing and distribution policy is challenged

Location: 
CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
Oroville Mercury-Register (CA)
URL: 
http://www.orovillemr.com/news/ci_5761505

Pleas won't end probe of Atlanta police

Location: 
Atlanta, GA
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
URL: 
http://www.ajc.com/metro/content/metro/atlanta/stories/2007/04/27/0427metjohnston.html

Drugs police raid great-grandmother's home

Location: 
United Kingdom
Publication/Source: 
The Times (UK)
URL: 
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article1710249.ece

LAPD skid row searches found unconstitutional

Location: 
Los Angeles, CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
Los Angeles Times
URL: 
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-downtown25apr25,0,2444457.story?coll=la-home-local

Search and Seizure: Supreme Court Takes Up Rights of Vehicle Passengers

When police pull over the driver of a vehicle, are they also "seizing" the vehicle's passengers? That's the question the US Supreme Court pondered Monday as it heard oral arguments (transcript here) in the case of a California man arrested on methamphetamine charges after the vehicle in which he was riding was pulled over. Questions from the justices suggested they would not feel free to leave if they were passengers in a vehicle pulled over by police, and if that sentiment holds, the court could rule that passengers have the right to make Fourth Amendment challenges to any evidence seized and used against them.

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US Supreme Court
The case pits the state of California against Bruce Brendlin, a former convict wanted for parole violation. Brendlin was a passenger in a car pulled over ostensibly to inspect possibly expired inspection tags. The officer recognized Brendlin, arrested him, searched the car, found methamphetamine supplies, and added a drug offense to the charges.

Brendlin eventually pleaded guilty, but appealed on the ground that the evidence should have been suppressed because the traffic stop was later found to be bogus. (The officer already knew the tags were good because he had stopped the car earlier that same day). The California Supreme Court rejected Brendlin's appeal, holding that only the driver had been "seized" during the traffic stop -- not Brendlin -- and thus Brendlin had no basis for challenging an illegal search.

Brendlin's attorney, Elizabeth Campbell, told the court that when a police officer pulls over a vehicle, "he seizes not only the driver of the car but also the car and every person and everything in that car."

California Deputy Attorney General Clifford Zall argued that it is only the driver, not the passenger, who is "seized" because it is the driver who submits to the officer's authority. That caused some skepticism among the justices, a majority of whom indicated through their comments that they believe passengers as well as the driver are "seized." That is also the position of the courts in most states.

While Brendlin appears likely to prevail on this issue, he is still likely to be imprisoned as a parole violator. Still, what would likely be a symbolic victory for Brendlin could become a substantive victory for the rest of us.

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