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Can the DEA Hide a Surveillance Camera on Your Land? [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

A case that began with reports of suspicious activity in northeast Wisconsin forest land last spring may be headed for the US Supreme Court. That's because a US district court judge ruled in the case last fall that it was okay for the DEA to enter the rural property without a warrant and install surveillance cameras that were used to help convict five members of a family on charges they were growing marijuana.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/dea-camera.jpg
surveillance camera (shutterstock.com)
The ruling last October came in a motion to suppress the evidence obtained by the warrantless video cameras. After that ruling, the defendants, five members of the Magana family, pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute marijuana and now face up to life in prison and up to $10 million in fines. But as part of the plea deal, they retained their right to appeal the ruling.

And their attorneys say they are prepared to take the case all the way to the US Supreme Court.

In their motion, they had asked the court to suppress evidence because of the property's locked gate and "No Trespassing" sign. Since the properties were heavily wooded and posted with signs, the owners were entitled to an expectation of privacy, the attorneys say.

"After sentencing, the first round of appeals will go to the Seventh Circuit and if there's no favorable ruling there, the cases will be filed into the US Supreme Court," Wisconsin attorney Stephen Richards told the Chronicle last week.

"That one's action could be recorded on their own property even if the property is not within the curtilage is contrary to society's concept of privacy," said Green Bay attorney Breet Reetz, who represents Marco Magana.

Curtilage is a term of legal art referring to the area of a property immediately surrounding a house or dwelling. Past Supreme Court jurisprudence, particularly US v. Oliver, had held under the "open fields" doctrine that areas outside the curtilage are not subject to the same Fourth Amendment protection as a home itself. "An individual may not legitimately demand privacy for activities conducted out of doors in fields, except in the area immediately surrounding the home…," the court held in Oliver. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Oliver was another marijuana cultivation case, in which Kentucky deputies walked a mile onto the property before spotting a marijuana field. Their search was upheld.)

It all began in rural Marinette County last May, when a fishermen reported to local authorities that he had been run off the land by two men who told him "fishing is closed" and that he had observed trees cut down and power lines running across the property. Authorities investigated and found the property and two more adjacent properties were owned by members of the Magana family, which had purchased them months earlier.

Authorities left it at that until the following month, when a logger reported that when he had gone to check on a timber stand at one of the properties, he stumbled over a marijuana cultivation operation with more than 30 plants in a 50' x 50' clearing. The DEA then was called in and entered the Magana's properties without a warrant. Agents installed video cameras that eventually captured incriminating evidence of vehicles traveling in and out of the properties.

It wasn't until the DEA observed some of the men handling what believed to be marijuana did they go and request a warrant. A warrant was signed and the agents, accompanied by several local sheriff officers, executed the warrant and arrested the men at separate addresses near Green Bay.

The bust was big news in Marinette County.

"You've got thousands of plants, and as healthy as they look, this is a big operation," Sheriff Jerry Suave told local reporters at the time. The grow is probably "the largest I've seen," he added.

Before trial, set for the fall, counsel for the Maganas filed a motion to suppress the evidence, informing the court that videos from the surveillance camera showed dates that indicated that the camera had been running for 79 consecutive hours before DEA agent Steven Curran obtained a search warrant for the property.

"It is undisputed that the government trespassed without a warrant upon private property with visible 'No Trespassing' signs" posted," Reetz wrote in the motion, noting that the camera had operated from July 12 to July 15, but the warrant wasn't issued until July 17. Nor were there any "exigent circumstances" that would have allowed officers to enter the property without a warrant.

Federal prosecutors were ready with a response.

"Officers entering an 'open field' is not an area enumerated as protected under the Fourth Amendment," countered Assistant US Attorney for Eastern Wisconsin James Santelle. "'Open fields,' woods, and private lands are not 'persons, houses, papers, and effects' protected under the Constitution."

That was good enough for Eastern Wisconsin US District Court Chief Judge William Griesbach, who dismissed the defense motion and ruled that it was legal for the DEA to go onto private property without a warrant to install multiple covert digital cameras, and to use the evidence they obtain that way to obtains warrants and in court. Citing US v. Oliver, Griesbach held that the rural properties were curtilage and not protected by the Fourth Amendment.

But the Maganas' attorneys and other legal experts argue that even though "open fields" are not considered curtilage, if "No Trespassing" or "Private Property" signs are posted on the land, the property owner should still be entitled to an expectation of privacy under the law. And they are willing to take their argument to the highest court in the land.

"We have become a nation of men and not a nation of laws, which, is what our founding fathers didn't want us to become," Reetz said.

After formal sentencing, the case heads for the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. If Reetz and Richards don't prevail there, it is on to the Supreme Court. If the court were to take up the case, it would once again have the opportunity to try to untangle the dilemmas that result when the Fourth Amendment runs up against new technologies, for better or worse.

Green Bay, WI
United States

Utah Cops Interrupt Husband's Last Goodbyes to Grab Dead Woman's Pain Pills

Barbara Alice Mahaffey, an elderly resident of Vernal, Utah, died at home of colon cancer on May 21 as her husband of 58 years stood at her side. The death of his long-time spouse was bad enough, but what came next has Ben Mahaffey furious -- and heading to court.

Barbara Alice Mahaffey (family photo)
Mahaffey, 80, filed a lawsuit against the city of Vernal earlier this month charging that Vernal police interrupted his last goodbyes by searching his house for her prescription pain medication without a warrant within minutes after her death. Mahaffey said he was distraught and trying to ensure that his wife's body would be transported to a funeral home with dignity when police insisted he help them look for drugs.

"I was holding her hand and saying goodbye when all the intrusion happened," he told the Deseret News.

According to Mahaffey, his wife died at 12:35am with him and an EMT at her side. About 10 minutes later, a mortician and hospice worker arrived, accompanied by police. Mahaffey says he doesn't know how police came to be there, but that they treated him as if he were going to sell the drug on the street.

His wife had prescriptions for Oxycontin, oxycodone, and morphine. Such heavy-duty opiates are commonly used by people in end-stage cancer. They are also highly sought after by people who are self-medicating, using them for recreational purposes, or addicted to them.

"I was indignant to think you can't even have a private moment. All these people were there and they're not concerned about her or me. They're concerned about the damned drugs. Isn't that something?" he said. "I had no interest in those drugs. I'm no addict."

According to the lawsuit, Mahaffey asked Vernal city officials and police leaders how they could search his home without a warrant and was told that they could do so under the Utah Controlled Substances Act. The lawsuit also claims that city manager Ken Bassett pooh-poohed his concerns, saying he was being "overly sensitive" and that police were just trying to protect the public from diverted prescription drugs. Mahaffey described city officials as "rude" and "condescending."

His attorney, Andrew Fackrell, told the Deseret News the warrantless search was both unlawful and uncalled for. There is nothing in the state's drug law that permits entering homes to search for prescription drugs without a warrant, he said.

"I don't believe the public would intend for the government to be rummaging through your cupboards while your wife is lying in the next room being prepared to be taken to her final resting place," Fackrell said. "That's an extraordinary invasion of privacy."

Fackrell added that it is apparently common practice for Vernal police to search for prescription drugs without a warrant after someone dies, but that it is done selectively. While some cities have prescription drug "take back" programs, he said, the Vernal police approach takes that to  "an absurd level."

Mahaffey said he was concerned about eroding rights.

"The whole thing, when think about it after the fact, is so stupid," he said. "My basic motivation was 'Gee, I don't want this to happen to other people.'"

The lawsuit names the city of Vernal, city manager Bassett, and four members of the Vernal Police. It alleges the action by police violated Fourth Amendment rights to be free of unwarranted search and seizure and 14th Amendment rights to equal protection under the law.

The city and the individual plaintiffs have not publicly commented on the lawsuit.

Vernal, UT
United States

Protecting Your Rights in a College Dorm

Over at Flex Your Rights, we've been getting a lot of questions lately about how to protect your rights when you're living in a college dorm. I put together this video response that I hope everyone will find helpful (I think a lot of the tips will be useful to anyone who's living around lots of other people, so this isn't just for students). Enjoy, and please share with any students you know.

I forgot to mention this in the video, but one of the emails we received was from a student who had his room searched twice recently because of a "text-a-tip" program designed to help classmates narc on each other for drug crimes. He was innocent, but someone kept sending the authorities after him anyway. And, of course, if any marijuana had been found, our friend probably wouldn't be in school anymore.

If the existence of such a despicable program doesn't remove all doubt about the need for know your rights info on college campuses, nothing will. This kind of crap is exactly why America jails more people than any other nation, while other countries are kicking our ass in math and science. It's not an accident. We're doing this to ourselves on purpose.  

Supreme Court Hears Drug Dog Cases

The US Supreme Court Wednesday heard oral arguments in a pair of cases out of Florida involving the use of drug sniffing dogs. One case is about whether it is legal to use drug dogs to sniff around the outside of homes without a warrant and the other is about how reliable the drug dogs actually are. The cases have the potential to either expand or restrict the use of drug dogs under Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

The two cases are Florida v. Joelis Jardines, in which Jardines was arrested for marijuana cultivation after police without a search warrant brought a drug dog to his door, then returned with a search warrant after the drug dog alerted, and Florida v. Clayton Harris, in which Harris was arrested on methamphetamine charges after a drug dog alerted on his vehicle, but was stopped again two months later in the same vehicle and the same drug dog alerted, but no drugs were found.

In both cases, the Florida Supreme Court held that the drug dog searches were illegal, in Jardines because it was a warrantless search of a home and in Harris because it didn't find sufficient evidence of the drug dog's reliability. In both cases, the state of Florida appealed.

The Jardines case raises the issue of whether homes are subject to a higher Fourth Amendment standard than automobiles in traffic, luggage being sniffed on a conveyer belt, or packages being sniffed at a package delivery service. The Supreme Court has upheld the warrantless use of drug dogs in those cases, but has been inclined to grant greater protections to the sanctity of the home, rejecting, for example, the use of thermal imaging equipment to detect marijuana grow operations.

Gregory Garre, arguing for the state of Florida, ran into problems with some justices when he suggested that a drug dog sniff of a residence does not constitute a search under the law and thus no warrant is needed.

If that were the case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg replied, wouldn't police be able to just walk down the street with a drug dog in "a neighborhood that’s known to be a drug-dealing neighborhood, just go down the street, have the dog sniff in front of every door, or go into an apartment building? I gather that that is your position."

"Your Honor, they could do that," Garre said.

Justice Elena Kagan also questioned Garre's rationale that a drug dog sniff was somehow different from a technology that allowed police to see inside a home -- such as the thermal imaging the court had previously ruled against. If someone invented a "Smell-o-matic" machine, Kagan said, police would still need to get a warrant to use it to search the home.

Jardines' attorney, Howard Blumberg, argued that the thermal imaging precedent applied to drug dogs at a home as well. Using a drug dog outside a house was cut from the same cloth, he said.

"I would submit that would basically be the same thing as a police officer walking up and down the street with a thermal imager that's turned on," Blumberg said.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, often a deciding vote on the closely divided court, challenged Garre on his contention that people with contraband in their homes have no expectation of privacy.

"Don't ask me to write an opinion and say, 'Oh, we're dealing with contraband here, so we don't need to worry about expectation of privacy,'" Kennedy said.

But Kennedy was also reluctant to accept Blumberg's argument that when police are trying to find something people are keeping secret, it amounts to a search under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

"To say our decisions establish that police action which reveals any detail an individual seeks to keep private is a search: that is just a sweeping proposition that in my view, at least, cannot be accepted in this case. I think it's just too sweeping and wrong,’" Kennedy said.

"I would add a few words to the end of that statement: Anything that an individual seeks to keep private in the home, and that's the difference," Blumberg replied.

In the Harris case, it was the reliability of drug dogs that was at issue.

"Dogs make mistakes. Dogs err," Harris's attorney, Glen Gifford told the justices. "Dogs get excited and will alert to things like tennis balls in trunks or animals, that sort of thing. There is no canine exception to the totality of the circumstances test for probable cause to conduct a warrantless search. If that is true, as it must be, any fact that bears on a dog's reliability as a detector of the presence of drugs comes within the purview of the courts."

Questions about the reliability of drug dogs have been on the rise in recent years. Last year, the Chicago Tribune analyzed three years of data from suburban police departments and found that alerts from dogs during roadside encounters led to drugs or paraphernalia just 44% of the time, and only 27% of the time for Hispanic drivers.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited an Australian study that found a drug dog only correctly identified drugs 12% of the time.

"I'm deeply troubled by a dog that alerts only 12% of the time," she said.

Garre responded that the study could be read differently, raising the number of correct alerts to as high as 70% -- if you included instances where the person the dog alerted to had used in been in contact with drug prior to the dog's alert.

And Justice Department attorney Joseph Palmore, arguing in support of Florida's position, told justices they should not let questioning of the dogs' skills go too far.

"I think it's critical... that the courts not constitutionalize dog training methodologies or hold mini-trials with expert witnesses on what makes for a successful dog training program," he said, citing the use of dogs in multiple search endeavors. "There are 32 K-9 teams in the field right now in New York and New Jersey looking for survivors of Hurricane Sandy. So, in situation after situation, the government has in a sense put its money where its mouth is, and it believes at an institutional level that these dogs are quite reliable."

The Supreme Court will decide the paired cases sometime next year.

Washington, DC
United States

Georgia Man Holding Pepper Spray Killed in Drug Raid

Georgia police executing a drug search warrant shot and killed the 60-year-old home owner holding a canister of pepper spray of during a confrontation last Wednesday. Daniel John Thomas Hammett becomes the 51st person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to the Paulding County Sheriff's Office, agents with the Haralson Paulding Narcotics Task Force had been investigating the home's occupants for selling drugs and had made several drug purchases, as well as getting complaints from neighbors.

Sheriff's spokesman Cpl. Ashley Henson said before the shooting, officers knocked on the door of the residence in Hiram and announced who they were. They then entered the home -- although Henson didn't make clear how they did so -- and encountered Hammett in a darkened hallway.

"It was very dark because the windows in the front portion of the residence had been covered and were blacked out," Henson said. "When agents first made contact with Hammett, they instructed him to show his hands and he initially did not comply. Hammett then raised his hands up in an aggressive manner while he was holding a black shiny object which was pointed toward agents," Henson said.

"It was then that agents opened fire on Mr. Hammett, fatally striking him once," Henson explained. "It was later determined that Hammett had raised a canister of pepper spray toward the agents."

Hammett was airlifted to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, where he died later that afternoon.

Hammett's son Clyde challenged the police version of events in an interview with WSB TV later that same day. His father was arthritic and unarmed, and there was nothing in his hands or next to him after he fell to the floor, he said. Clyde Hammett also said there would be no drugs found at the house.

"They killed him. They killed an innocent man and that's all there is to say to it," Clyde Hammett said. "They say he was armed. They can search all they want, there's no guns in that house."

Cpl. Henson said evidence related to drug trafficking was later found in the home, but didn't specifiy exactly what had been found.

The officers involved in the shooting are on paid administrative leave pending the results of a review by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Hiram, GA
United States

ACLU Fighting Decision in Cell Phone Tracking Case [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

The American Civil Liberties is challenging a federal appeals court ruling that it is legal for the DEA and other law enforcement agencies to track GPS-equipped cell phones without a warrant. The group has filed an amicus brief urging the full 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the ruling of a three-judge panel last month in US v. Skinner, with ACLU attorney Catherine Crump warning that "the Sixth Circuit ruling in August in Melvin Skinner's case undermined the privacy rights of everyone who carries a cell phone."

Melvin Skinner was suspected of being part of a massive marijuana trafficking organization. Without getting a warrant or showing probable cause, the DEA forced Skinner's cell phone company to provide them with his GPS coordinates continuously as they tracked him cross-country for three days. Using that data, they tracked him down in Texas, searched his mobile home, found 1,100 pounds of marijuana, and arrested him on drug charges. Skinner was convicted and then appealed, arguing that the GPS tracking of his cell phone without a warrant violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

"There is no Fourth Amendment violation because Skinner did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data given off by his 'pay-as-you-go' cell phone, the kind of phone called 'burners' that drug dealers often use for business and quickly dispose of," Judge John Rogers wrote in the majority opinion in Skinner. "If a tool is used to transport contraband and it gives off a signal that can be tracked, certainly the police can track the signal." 

A well-known tool of the trade for those in the drug underworld, 'burners' were also popularized by the HBO show The Wire, which hyped the notoriety of the prepaid phones in its series.

Legal experts say if the Sixth Circuit decision stands it would severely undercut the US Supreme Court decision this past January in the case of accused drug dealer Antoine Jones. In US v. Jones, the Supreme Court issued a historic decision prohibiting law enforcement from tracking vehicles with GPS device without first obtaining a search warrant -- a tactic the feds used against Jones case when the FBI and DEA installed a GPS device on his SUV for 28 days.

Jones' life sentence without parole was reversed and he was remanded for retrial scheduled in 2013. The chilling effect of the Supreme Court ruling in the Jones case forced the FBI to pull the plug on 3,000 GPS tracking systems that had been secretly installed on vehicles across the nation.

"While the Jones case imposes constitutional restrictions on law enforcement to track vehicles with warrantless GPS devices, the Sixth Circuit has now held that agents can engage in even more intrusive surveillance of cell phones without implicating the Fourth Amendment at all," the ACLU noted in its brief to the court.

In their efforts to overturn Skinner's lengthy prison sentence, his attorneys argued that the use of the GPS location information in the cell phone that led to his arrest violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against warrantless searches and seizures. The primary question in the case was whether Skinner had a "reasonable expectation" of privacy in the data that his cell phone emitted.

The Sixth Circuit ruling comes exactly a month after a Congressional inquiry discovered how law enforcement made over 1.3 million requests for cell phone data last year, seeking subscriber information, text messages, location data and calling records. If upheld, it would be a major boost for government surveillance power as state and federal prosecutors shift their focus to warrantless cell-towers to ferret out cell phone data and track the GPS signals in cell phones without a warrant in a bid to get out from under the Supreme Court's ruling in that police cannot use warrantless GPS to track vehicles.

Lawyers and law enforcement officials agree there are too many conflicts over what information the police are entitled to legally get from wireless cell carriers.

"It's terribly confusing, and understandably so, when federal courts can't agree," cell phone industry attorney Michael Sussman told the New York Times earlier this year. The companies "push back" often when confronted with "urgent" requests for cell phone data, he said. "Not every emergency is an emergency."

US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge John Rogers (wikimedia.org)
Without a doubt, cell phone data and GPS signals in cell phones are hot commodities in the surveillance business. Business is booming for wireless carriers who sell customers data and cell phone locations to police either by the hour or for one big fee.(See our May story on the practice and the legal challenges to it here.)

But law enforcement is especially well-placed to take advantage of the data. With a simple judge's order, it can easily obtain reams of data and the GPS location of a target's cell phone without a warrant.

As the Times noted, tracking GPS signals in cell phones has become such a tempting technique that the Iowa City Police Department had to issue a stern warning to officers: "Do not mention to the public or the media about the use of cell technology or equipment used to locate targeted subjects and its use should be kept out of police reports."

Similarly, a 2010 training manual written by California prosecutors informed investigators on "how to get the good stuff" using technology. Another police training manual describes cell phones as "the virtual biographer of our daily activities," providing a hunting ground for learning contacts and travels.

The easy availability of cell phone data could spell big trouble for accused drug dealer Antoine Jones as he prepares for retrial next year. This time around, the feds will not use GPS evidence from his vehicle because the Supreme Court prohibited that in his case last year, but it plans to use Jones' cell phone data and the GPS signal in his phone as evidence to connect him with numerous kilos of cocaine.

On September 4, the Obama administration, citing a 1976 Supreme Court precedent, told the federal judge in Jones case that such data, like banking records, and cell phone records, are "third-party records," which means customers have no right to keep it private.

Jones' attorney, Eduardo Balarezo, disagreed. "The government seeks to do with cell site data what it cannot do with the suppressed GPS data that's already been ruled illegal by the Supreme Court," he argued in his brief in the case.

Jones, who is still behind bars despite his victory at the Supreme Court because the government insists on retrying him, is steadfast.

"I am going to fight this all the way to the end," he told the Chronicle.

Aside from the Fourth Amendment implications of the Skinner decision, the case raises another question: Did the courts misinterpret the arcane federal laws governing electronic surveillance?

Jennifer Granick, director for civil liberties, the Stanford Law School Center for the Internet and Society
A Stanford University attorney who is an expert on the legalities now says even the trial court erroneously applied the wrong "trap and trace" statute in denying to suppress the evidence the DEA used to obtain a court order to track the GPS signal in Skinner's phone.

"It was basically the government's "hybrid theory" of what constituted a legal trace of the phone and the court intrepreted the wrong statute," Jennifer Granick told the Chronicle. "The tracking order the DEA used to track Mr. Skinner's phone was not applied correctly under the statute. Pinging a phone in real time is governed by the Pen Register/Trap and Trace statute. To get a trap and trace order, the government usually needs an order under [the relevant] section."

But as Granick has argued in federal criminal defense seminars, the Communications Assistance for Enforcement Act (CALEA) prohibits use of the pen register authorization to obtain subscriber location information."So, the feds should have gotten a warrant under [a different] rule for this information, but clearly did not," Granick concluded.

The confusion is around whether to apply the Pen Register statute or the Stored Communications Act (SCA). The SCA was used by the judge to authorize the trace on Skinner's phone. Under SCA, police cannot receive the contents of the electronic communication, but, police are allowed to find out "where whom said what."

The advantage for law enforcement, prosecutors and judges in such matters is the fact they often use this reasoning to obtain location data that can easily turn a cell phone into a tracking device without a warrant -- whereas legal experts say it should require a much higher threshold -- like a probable cause warrant.

Granick was surprised to learn the court relied on the SCA instead of the other relevant laws.

"You mean the court authorized real time tracking based on the Stored Communications Act, without even a reference to the Pen Register statute or CALEA?" she asked incredulously. "Well, it's not right, but that's what the court did."

Restrained by the Supreme Court from using warrantless GPS tracking by the Jones case, federal law enforcement and local police are making greater use of cell phone data to track suspects. Whether that is constitutional is still an open question. Federal courts are splitting on the issue of whether the collection of cell phone data and the warrantless tracking information of the GPS signal in a phone is legal. That means the issue is likely headed for the Supreme Court for final resolution.

Meanwhile, it looks like Skinner may have yet another issue to raise on appeal.

No Warrant Needed for Illinois Drug Audio Recordings [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

No warrant needed for listening in on drug suspects (wikimedia.org)
In Illinois, the war on drugs has delivered yet another blow to citizens' privacy rights. In the Land of Lincoln, it is illegal for citizens to record or videotape Illinois police in public, yet the Illinois legislature last month gave police the right to engage in those very same activities -- without a warrant -- during drug investigations.

On July 24, citing police safety and the need for quicker drug arrests, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed into law House Bill 4081, which exempts police doing drug investigations from the provisions of the state's eavesdropping law. It also allows them to audio or videotape drug suspects without having to get a warrant.

Under the bill, sponsored by state Reps. Jehan Gordon (D-Peoria) and William Haine (D-Alton), the normal requirement of a warrant based on probable cause is replaced by the lower and constitutionally-suspect requirement of only reasonable cause. In a further victory for the imperatives of the drug law enforcement, police will be able to bypass judicial scrutiny of their need to record someone and instead will merely have to obtain prior approval from a prosecutor to listen in on suspected drug conversations.

"The world of illicit drugs moves very quickly," explained Terry Lemming, an Illinois State Police commander, during a May hearing on the bill. "It's very difficult to find a judge in the middle of the night. I didn't see the sense in spending all these hours drafting a court order when I could have already gone out and arrested a guy selling on the corner -- and that's the feeling of many narcotic officers."

Riverside, Illinois, Police Chief Tom Weitzel told the Chronicle the new law was desperately needed. Weitzel is a member of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, who, along with his comrades, fought for 14 years to get the law passed.

"The law is critical to undercover narcotic officers for several reasons," he wrote in an email. "First, it's an officer safety issue because many times backup teams are blocks away when drug transactions either take place in cars, within homes or apartments, or just on the streets."

Weitzel even went as far as to say the law would benefit defendants, too.

"The legislation will help secure better evidence for prosecutors and protect suspects from police misconduct, including the fact the same audio recordings made by police can be used by defendants who claim entrapment," he argued.

But while the bill is now law, not everyone is happy about it. Rumblings of discontent have been heard from civil rights advocates, legal experts, and opposing lawmakers.

State Sen. Dan Kotowski (D-Park Ridge) argued during hearings on the bill that if judicial responsiveness is a problem for police, then the fix would be to make judges more available for warrant requests -- not to take them out of the loop.

"I'm struggling with taking away where you'd go to get a judge's approval to have a wiretap," he said.

Under the new law, judges are not completely frozen out of the process, but their role is limited to determining whether evidence gained from a wiretap can be admitted at trial.

"I understand the desire to enhance law enforcement tools to deal with crime, and I am certainly on the side of law enforcement, but it's a very slippery slope we go down when we start removing safeguards that has historically exist to make sure certain tools not be used inappropriately," state Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) told the Chicago Tribune.

State Sen. Michael Nolan (D-Elgin) also weighed in on the matter. Nolan's dissatisfaction with the bill is the fact the new law deals with reasonable cause as the standard for having private conversations recorded, as opposed to probable cause, which is the standard bearer for the integrity of the law.

"This legislation does not base that determination of admissibility on 'probable cause,'" he said. "This is basically upending the Fourth Amendment."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/ed-yohnka-200px.jpg
ACLU of Illinois' Ed Yohnka
The ACLU of Illinois had a similar reading. Its spokesman, director of communications and public policy Ed Yohnka, told the Chronicle the new law was not only constitutionally suspect but also unnecessary.

"In all the years that Illinois law enforcement worked for this change, they never been able to point to a particular need for this new power. In many years, we have seen drug related arrests in Illinois rise over a yearly period without this new authority -- which begs the question: is this power really necessary?" he asked.

"The legislature should have left things alone because judges act as a neutral third party and they can already act fast enough," Yohnka continued. "Our personal conversations are the most intimate we have and government should make certain it is necessary to intrude before engaging in eavesdropping."

For Yohnka, the new law doesn't pass the smell test. He noted that current law already allows police to wiretap or do audio recording in an emergency and suggested the real intent is to allow police to more easily listen in on targets not directly involved with drug trafficking, targets merely associated with a prime suspect.

"The current law permits an officer to conduct warrantless wiretapping or audio-recording if police or citizens were in imminent danger," Yohnka said. "The creation of this new authority suggests this is not about protecting police officers."

What makes the new law all the more galling to some is that police, who can now wiretap drug suspects without a warrant, have a habit of arresting members of the public who do the same thing to them. Under current Illinois eavesdropping law, citizens have the right to video a police officer making a public arrest, but a person cannot record an audio of police without permission.

That law is now under review by the state's appellate courts in a case arising from the 2009 arrest of self-employed artist Christopher Drew. When police arrested him for selling art on the street without a proper permit, they discovered him recording the encounter. They then charged him with felony eavesdropping for recording them without their permission.

Drew went public and fought to have the law declared illegal and earlier this year he won a partial victory when Circuit Court Judge Stanley Sacks declared it unconstitutional. Sacks ruled that the law criminalized innocent conduct and violated due process. But state prosecutors appealed the ruling and vowed to keep it on the books.

One standard for police, another for citizens. Police can record private conversations without a warrant, but citizens face years in prison if they record police in the line of duty -- at least until the Illinois courts definitively rule that portion of the eavesdropping law unconstitutional. Meanwhile, look for legal challenges to the new law allowing police to bypass judges and the warrant process in their never-ending war on drugs.

IL
United States

Redefining the English Language to Fight the Drug War

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/scalesofjustice.jpg
The tendency of the courts to trash our privacy rights in a pathetic attempt to prevent marijuana smoking is so routine that I seldom bother even to point it out anymore, but something about this case bugged me just enough to slap it around for a second.

FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- The federal government can obtain suspected marijuana growers' utility records without a warrant.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled in the case of a Fairbanks utility, Golden Valley Electric Association, which refused turning over records to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

GVEA argued the Fourth Amendment protects customers from search and seizure without a proper warrant.

But the appeals court ruled a customer lacks an expectation of privacy in an item, like a business record. [SacBee.com]

Doesn't that just sound silly? In fairness, I've studied enough law to know that the legal definition of a term like "expectation of privacy" is always slowly evolving and doesn't necessarily mean what a random person would think it to mean. But come the hell on. Once we reach point where they're telling us with a straight face that we have no "expectation of privacy" with regards to our business records, well, that's just too stupid for school.

Unfortunately, it's really rather consistent with how the courts treat our privacy rights, and the decision of how much privacy we can reasonably expect is not ours to make. Courts have consistently ruled, for example, that information you share with a third party carries no expectation of privacy because you're assuming the risk that someone will turn that information over to the government. I disagree.

Rather obviously, we wouldn't have to worry about the government obtaining our information from third parties if the government hadn't granted itself the authority to collect said information and then introduce it as evidence against us in court. I wouldn't have to worry about third parties carelessly disclosing my private information if such information were legally inadmissible as it ought to be.

When I hear the term "expectation of privacy" I think of the physical boundaries that separate public from private. I don't expect privacy with regards to my purchases at the grocery store, or the content of a conversation on a crowded street. It's well understood that any crime committed in "plain view" is fair game for police, even if they have to use binoculars to get a good view. I even sort of sympathize with allowing police to search your trash, since you left it outside where anyone could walk off with it.

But anyone can't just walk off with my utility bills. Stealing mail is a crime, after all. To say that I have no expectation of privacy with regards to that information is preposterous. Yes, the utility company could give my information to the police, but so could a neighbor who steals my mail. Either way, I'm getting screwed by somebody and it's not my fault for expecting privacy.

Narc Scandal Front and Center in Florida Sheriff Race [FEATURE]

Scandal has been brewing in the Pinellas County, Florida, Sheriff's Office over the possibly criminal misbehavior of some of its narcotics detectives, and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a Republican, has been trying to keep it from spinning out of control. But with his job on the line in November, his challengers, Republicans and Democrats alike, are making the scandal -- and the department's emphasis on busting marijuana grows -- issues with which to wound him in the campaign.

Narcotics deputies went above and beyond in their efforts to bust indoor marijuana grows (wikimedia.org)
Pinellas County sits on Florida's Gulf Coast and includes the city of St. Petersburg. For the last few years, it has been an epicenter of the state's prescription opioid epidemic, but despite the county leading the state in Oxycontin overdose deaths, some Pinellas County narcs were more interested in pot growers than pill mill merchants.[Editor's Note: At least one candidate for sheriff is challenging the conventional law enforcement narrative regarding opioid pain medications; see Scott Swope's comments on the topic at the end of this article.]

It all began when narcotics detectives with the sheriff's office hit on the bright idea of spying on a legal business -- a Largo hydroponics grow shop -- and taking down the license plate numbers of customers, and then snooping around to see what they could find. At least four detectives were involved in surveillance that apparently crossed the line into illegality by trespassing on private property without a warrant, by disguising themselves as utility company workers, and by subsequently falsifying search warrant affidavits (they would claim to have smelled marijuana from the street, when they had actually trespassed to find evidence).

They would have gotten away with it if not for tenacious defense attorneys. But things began to unravel last year, when the attorney for Allen Underwood, who had been arrested in a grow-op bust, filed a complaint saying that Underwood's surveillance cameras had recorded one of the detectives hopping over his fence. The detective ordered the surveillance video deleted, and the sheriff's office found no evidence of wrongdoing by its man.

Next, Largo defense attorney John Trevena charged in a case that one of the detectives had donned a Progress Energy shirt and cap to gain warrantless access to a private property. The detective first denied it under oath, then admitted it. At the time, Gualtieri attributed the deception to "over-exuberance" by a young detective.

Then, in February, Tarpon Springs attorney Newt Hudson questioned one of the detectives under oath about whether he ever saw his dope squad colleagues trespass. Under questioning, the detective admitted that he and one of the other detectives had once broken down a fence to enter a yard of interest.

"That was the game changer," Sheriff Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times last month as he announced he was launching a criminal investigation of the four detectives. "Misconduct will not be tolerated and we will hold accountable any member of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office who acts contrary to the law," Gualtieri said. "The ends never justify the means."

Embattled Sheriff Bob Gualtieri (bobforsheriff.com)
Three of the detectives have resigned, and Gualtieri fired the fourth, but it might be too late to undo the damage to local law enforcement and to Gualtieri's own political prospects. At least 18 pending marijuana grow prosecutions have been halted, and Gualtieri and Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said they also will review charges against about two dozen other defendants who previously pleaded guilty, were convicted or accepted plea bargains.

And Gualtieri has been repeatedly pummeled by challengers over the scandal. Not only the sole Democrat in the race, Palm Harbor attorney Scott Swope, but Gualtieri's Republican challengers, most notably former Sheriff Everett Rice, have criticized his handling of the affair. The Republican primary, which Gualtieri hopes to survive, is set for August 14.

"They shouldn't have been investigating the store to begin with," Swope told the Chronicle. "As far as criminal activity is concerned, we have bigger fish to fry than trying to catch people who are purchasing grow lamps. It was absolutely ridiculous."

Especially given that the sheriff's office had had to cut $100 million from its budget and eliminate 600 positions, including the cold case unit and sexual predator tracking, Swope said, alluding to the severe financial straits in which the department and the county found themselves.

"When I'm at a campaign presentation and tell people that they had detectives for surveilling this business selling legal equipment, but not for human trafficking or cold cases, everyone hears that and goes 'wow,'" Swope said. "It's an argument that has some traction."

Swope also criticized the leisurely pace of Gualtieri's internal investigation.

"The internal investigation took way too long," said Swope. "When you have an assertion that one of your detectives is trespassing to obtain evidence, falsifying ID to obtain evidence, falsifying affidavits, then destroying evidence, that needs to take precedence over every other internal investigation, and it didn't. When Gualtieri first went on the record, he said he didn't believe it; he just dismissed it, at least initially."

For Rice, who served as sheriff for 16 years until 2004, the pot grow scandal was an indication of misplaced priorities in Gualtieri's department.

"How is it that Pinellas and Pasco County became the pill-mill capital of the world in the last three or four years," Rice asked at a candidates' forum this spring, "and meanwhile we're spying on people who have hydroponic materials?"

Rice was still on the attack last month, telling the Tampa Bay Times that problems in the department are not limited to the pot grow scandal, but also include reports of slipshod internal investigations, narcotics sergeants claiming pay while monitoring detectives from home, and possible thefts.

"The question is,'' said Rice, "how did that culture come about in the first place? I think people realize that a Sheriff Rice wouldn't put up with such things,'' Rice said.

Except that he did. During his time in office, one of Rice's narcotics detectives gathered evidence of a pot grow illegally and lied about it under oath. He also fabricated evidence for a search warrant by calling in his own "anonymous tip." In another case, deputies used an informant to get a search warrant without revealing that the informant's wife was having an affair with the suspect. Pinellas judges tossed a number of pot grow cases over police misconduct during Rice's reign, and one detective was prosecuted for perjury.

One of the cases tossed was against Randy Heine, a Pinellas Park smoke shop owner. In that 1997 bust, deputies raided Heine's home and seized two pounds of pot, but a judge threw out the case, finding that deputies had resorted to "gross, material misrepresentation of the facts'' in their search warrant application.

Heine, a perennial gadfly on the local scene, has also become a harsh critic of Pinellas-style drug law enforcement. He was briefly a candidate in the sheriff's face before dropping out after failing to pay a filing fee. That leaves Swope, Gualtieri, and Rice.

Democratic challenger Scott Swope (swopeforsheriff.com)
For Swope, Gualtieri and Rice are birds of a feather -- traditional lawmen who don't think twice about the futility and expense of continuing to fight the war on marijuana. He offers a different vision, one that includes marijuana decriminalization and, eventually, legalization and regulation.

"Florida should go the way of more than a dozen other states and decriminalize," he said. "Then the sheriff's office wouldn’t have to expend limited resources trying to catch people in possession of small amounts. That would make it so those young people don't have a criminal record, they're still eligible for student loans, they can get jobs. It's a bit of a shocker for some of my audiences, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense to save tax dollars by not investigating and prosecuting possession of small amounts."

A marijuana bust of 20 grams or less is a misdemeanor in Florida, but it means a trip to jail, booking, and waiting to get bonded out. It also uses up law enforcement man-hours during arrest, booking, detention, and prosecution. Florida should and will decriminalize eventually, Swope said, but he wouldn't wait for the legislature to act if elected.

"As sheriff, I can't tell the legislature what to do, but I would have some influence over the county commission. I could lobby them to enact an ordinance making possession of less than 20 grams an ordinance violation," he explained. "That way, instead of deputies having to arrest people and put them in the criminal justice system, they could just issue an ordinance violation ticket, and the fines would go to Pinellas County.

Swope was philosophically open to legal, regulated marijuana sales, but wasn't pushing it as a campaign position. First things first, he said.

"From the perspective of this campaign, the majority of the population believes medical marijuana should be legal, and I do, too," he explained. "Decriminalization and regulation similar to alcohol and cigarettes, well, that's a bit more of a progressive position. I think it's going to be a two-step process: Make medical marijuana legal, and after enough time, and people realize these folks aren't committing crimes, then it's time for step two."

Swope also had an interesting perspective on the pain pill and pill mill issue.

"Pinellas County had a very serious problem with pain pills, we led the state four straight years in Oxycontin deaths, and it's still a serious problem, but unfortunately, when they really ramp up the pain pill mill enforcement, the pendulum can swing too far the other way," he noted. "There is a potentially serious negative impact on doctors and pharmacies trying to help people who need the help. If Florida were a little more progressive and had a medical marijuana law, perhaps many could treat themselves with that instead of narcotics."

The one-time deputy's drug war positions are winning him support outside of traditional Democratic constituencies, including Libertarian Party figures ranging from county stalwarts to presidential nominee Gary Johnson.

"I have the endorsement of the Libertarian Party here, and that has some of the Democrats scratching their heads. I just explain that I'm a lawyer familiar with the Constitution, I'm progressive-thinking and understand and appreciate the value of personal liberty and what the Constitution means and I will make damned sure the sheriff's office abides by the Constitution."

Pinellas County has 3,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but most county offices, including the sheriff's, have been in Republican hands for decades. A victory for Democratic challenger Scott Swope in November would not only break the GOP's stranglehold on elected office in Pinellas, it could also bring a fresh new perspective to Florida law enforcement.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Gualtieri has just unleashed an offensive against "fake pot."

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

St. Petersburg, FL
United States

Nevada Drug Dog Troopers Allege Official Misconduct

A group of Nevada Highway Patrol troopers and a retired police sergeant have filed a lawsuit against the Patrol and the Las Vegas Metro Police charging them with racketeering and corruption. The charges center on the department's training and use of drug-sniffing dogs.

Drug sniffing dogs can be trained to alert on cue. (US Navy)
The troopers' complaint opens a most unflattering window on personal bickering, bureaucratic infighting, and unethical behavior among state law enforcement officials, as well as alleging unconstitutional policing practices, including unlawful searches and seizures and training drug dogs to learn "cues" about when to signal they have found drugs.

The complaint centers on what the troopers say was the intentional effort of Nevada Highway Patrol Commander Chris Perry to undermine the drug dog program after it was approved by then Gov. Jim Gibbons and retaliation against drug dog-handling troopers by Perry and his underlings.

But it reveals patterns of racial profiling, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and enforcement driven by hopes of asset forfeiture (which, incidentally, funded the entire drug dog program). The suing troopers allege that other troopers and Las Vegas Metro Police narcotics officers would illegally poke and open packages at a Fedex processing center to make it easier for drug dogs to hit on them.

Equally seriously, the complaint alleges that some drug dogs were intentionally trained to provide false alerts that they had detected drugs by responding to cues from their handlers. Using a false drug dog alert as the basis for initiating a search is illegal.

The complaint accuses Perry and his underlings of violating the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizaion (RICO) act by conspiring to use the improperly trained drug dogs to systematically conduct illegal searches and seizures for financial benefit.

None of the individuals or law enforcement organizations named in the lawsuit have yet publicly responded.

Las Vegas, NV
United States

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