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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."

https://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

NYPD Sued Over Stop and Frisk Marijuana Arrests

The Legal Aid Society in New York City announced last Friday that it had filed a lawsuit against the NYPD over its continuing practice of making misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests when they order suspects to empty their pockets during the department's controversial stop and frisk searches. Police Commissioner Raymond issued a memorandum last fall directing police not to make the arrests, but only to ticket pot possession offenders, but police continue to charge people with misdemeanors, according to the lawsuit.

"It's certainly a sad commentary that the commissioner can issue a directive that reads well on paper but on the street corners of the city doesn't exist," said Legal Aid's chief lawyer, Steven Banks.

Under New York state law, marijuana possession is decriminalized, but public possession remains a misdemeanor. In New York City, police order suspects to empty their pockets, then charge them with public possession if a baggie appears.

A call to modify the state's decriminalization law to include public possession as only a ticketable offense won broad support, including from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R), but was killed last week by Senate Republicans.

The lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, seeks a court order against the city and the NYPD declaring the practice illegal under state law and barring officers from making such arrests.

The Legal Aid Society filed the suit on behalf of five New Yorkers, all of whom were arrested since mid-April on misdemeanor possession charges after small amounts of pot were found on them during police stops. In each case, the marijuana became visible only after officers searched the men or asked them to empty their pockets.

"These five individuals are New Yorkers who were essentially victimized by unlawful police practices," Banks said. "The lawsuit is aimed at stopping a pernicious police practice, which is harming thousands of New Yorkers a year and clogging up the court system with one out of seven criminal cases and diverting resources and attention from more serious criminal matters."

One plaintiff, Juan Gomez-Garcia, said he was waiting for a food order outside a Kennedy Fried Chicken restaurant in the Bronx on May 16 when an officer approached, began to question him and asked if he had any drugs on him. Mr. Gomez-Garcia, 27, said that after he admitted to the officer that he had marijuana in his pocket, the officer reached inside the pocket and removed a plastic bag containing a small amount of the drug.

He was arrested and charged with "open to public view" possession for having marijuana "in his right hand." He spent about 12 hours in a jail cell and was let go after he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct violation, according to the lawsuit.

Because of the NYPD's massive stop-and-frisk program -- aimed overwhelmingly at young people of color -- and because of the department's willful misinterpretation of the law and refusal to follow Commissioner Kelly's directive, New York City is the nation's marijuana arrest capital. Around 50,000 people a year are charged with misdemeanor pot possession.

According to the Legal Aid Society, NYPD continues to arrest people for pot possession at about the same pace as ever. While arrests dipped below 3,000 in December, by March, the number of arrests had risen to 4,186, a number almost identical to the 4,189 arrests made last August, before Kelly issued his directive.

New York, NY
United States

Bill O'Reilly Opposes Marijuana Decrim Because it Might Reduce Racial Profiling

This week's exciting news that Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg are backing an effort to end New York City's mindless marijuana arrest crusade didn't exactly result in a round of applause at the FOX News studios. Here's Bill O'Reilly babbling about it.

O'Reilly says the cops "know who the wise guys are," and they're only bothering people who deserve it. That sounds reassuring, oh, except for the fact that NYPD has already searched more young black men than they even have in the entire city. So yeah, they might be catching some of these "wise guys" as O'Reilly so eloquently describes them, but only because they're also searching every other young black man in the city. There is no clever strategy behind it. They're just searching all the black dudes. Stop trying to make it sound sophisticated, Bill.

But the real problem with O'Reilly's logic, and it also highlights the irony of whole ridiculous situation, is that there's no component in this new marijuana decriminalization proposal that would actually require police to stop constantly racially profiling everyone they see. That's not even what this is. 

Simple possession is already decriminalized in New York. The measure in question would simply downgrade the more serious charge of "possession in public view" so that racial profiling victims would no longer be charged with the public display of marijuana as a result of police ordering them to empty their pockets. The policy of police racially profiling people and illegally searching them remains intact under this plan. You just get off the hook if any pot is found during the course of police committing misconduct against you.

I'm still in favor of the reform – anything that might stop all these pot busts is great – but it's insane that they're actually going so far as to legalize "public display" of marijuana simply because they can't stop the cops from yanking pot out of people's pockets and then lying about it. New York's marijuana law wasn't really even the problem here and shouldn't actually need to be changed to prevent the racially abusive enforcement and prosecution scheme that's been going on in New York for the past decade.

These were false arrests to begin with and the most appropriate solution would be for police and prosecutors to stop systematically violating people's rights. But apparently that is more difficult than reducing the penalties for marijuana. Wow.

What If Police Say They Smell Marijuana?

One of the most common questions we get at Flex Your Rights is how to handle a situation in which police claim to smell marijuana. This can happen whether or not you actually have marijuana and police actually smell it, so it's a situation everyone should be prepared for. 

My latest YouTube video takes a look at this tricky question.

Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking Being Challenged in Courts, Senate [FEATURE]

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

In the wake of the US Supreme Court's January decision in United States v. Jones, in which the high court forbade the warrantless use of GPS tracking devices to surveil people's movements, law enforcement and the Obama administration are scrambling -- not to find ways to comply with the spirit of the ruling, but to find ways around it.

Police in many states have switched tactics by obtaining mobile data to zero in on someone's prior movement and by tracking them through their cell phones, usually without a warrant. Whenever a cell phone is used, it "pings" an electronic signal to the nearest cell phone tower, allowing law enforcement to use the cell phone to find or track people. And cell phones containing GPS devices, which are increasingly common, "ping" constantly.

In April, the  American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released an extensive study of state, federal, and local law enforcement's surveillance practices that illustrate how police track citizens through their cell phones. The findings were staggering. Warrantless cell phone tracking "has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight," the report found.

After poring over 5,500 pages of records in responses from over 200 local law enforcement agencies, the ACLU researchers reported that "only a tiny minority" -- 10 agencies total -- had obtained a warrant before tracking someone through his or her cell phone.

"What we have learned is disturbing," said ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump, who helped file public information requests with some 385 law enforcement agencies. "The government should have to get a warrant before tracking a cell phone. Instead, what we found was that the cops track people with no supervision, or in some cases, mostly drug cases, the cop will go to court and only show that it would be relevant to an investigation, which is a lower standard."

The ACLU is calling for law enforcement agencies to desist from using cell phone tracking without a warrant, and is calling on state and federal lawmakers to pass legislation requiring a warrant before police use location tracking in non-emergency situations.

A bill to address the problem is pending in Congress. Senate Bill 1212, the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act, is sponsored in the Senate by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Kirk (R-IL). Companion legislation in the House, House Resolution 2168, is sponsored by Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Peter Welch (D-VT) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI.). The bills would require law enforcement agents to obtain a warrant in order to access location information.

Another Senate effort, Judiciary Committee chair Senator Patrick Leahy's (D-VT) Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act, Senate Bill 2011, offers a partial repair of the problem. It includes a warrant requirement for real-time tracking, but not for historical location information.

The Obama administration disagrees that any action is needed. At a State of the Mobile Net conference held in May, Justice Department Deputy Assistant Attorney Jason Weinstein argued, "[t]he need for such warrantless cell phone tracking is important so it won't cripple the government and law enforcement."

The administration's lawyers insist that when a person turns on a cell phone, the information from the phone is transmitted through a third-party, such as the wireless carrier, and the user thus has no "expectation of privacy."

Warrantless cell phone tracking "should be illegal," said Washington, DC, appellate attorney Stephan Leckar, who successfully represented DC nightclub owner Antoine Jones in the case cited above.

In that case, the Supreme Court reversed Jones' conviction and sentence of life without parole in a cocaine trafficking case after they found substantial evidence that the FBI placed a GPS device on Jones vehicle for 28 days without a search warrant. When police monitored Jones vehicle without a warrant, the court said, "This violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure."

According to Leckar, the "third-party" doctrine is a means for law enforcement to get around the Fourth Amendment. "As the law reads," he said, the 'third-party' doctrine doesn't violate the Fourth Amendment. To change this, people will have to petition Congress to change that doctrine."

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/judge-lynn-hughes.jpg
Judge Lynn Hughes
While privacy advocates like the ACLU's Crump argue that cell phone users should get the same protections against warrantless tracking as people subjected to GPS devices being surreptitiously placed on their vehicles, the Justice Department disagrees.

"There is no trespass or physical intrusion on a citizen's cell phone when the government obtains historical cell-site records from a provider," Justice Department attorneys argued in a brief in an appeals court case in February, adding that cell phone data are not as precise as GPS tracking data.

Most, but not all, recent state and federal court decisions in major drug cases have upheld the right of police to either track cell phones or search them for evidence in an investigation. In March, the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a warrantless search of a cell phone by Indiana police, a phone belonging to a  meth dealer identified as Abel Flores Lopez. Flores was given ten years in federal prison. His co-defendant Alberto Santana Cabrera received the toughest punishment. Santana got 75 years after failing to assist the government with valuable information on other drug dealers.

But federal judicial opinion isn't unanimous. Last year, in a blistering one-page ruling, US District Court Judge Lynn Hughes of the Southern District of Texas in Houston declared "that the law allowing the government to obtain cell phone records without a warrant is unconstitutional."

In that case, federal prosecutors had subpoenaed MetroPCS and T-Mobile to hand over sixty days of cell phone location data belonging to drug suspects. "The records would show the date, time, called number, and location of the telephone when the call was made," Hughes noted.

As the law now stands, cell phone customers who value their privacy are at the mercy of law enforcement and their wireless service providers. And the wireless service providers are all too happy to work with law enforcement voluntarily, and turn a tidy profit doing it.

Our favorite carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint, are in on the action by selling information to police about a person's whereabouts, including the sale of private text messages and cell tower data, which pinpoint the location where someone is using a cell, the New York Times reported in March. Some companies are marketing surveillance fees to law enforcement to spy on targets even though wireless carriers declare that they don't sell their customers' information to police.

The Times found that T-Mobile charges law enforcement $150 per-hour for cell phone data that shows the approximate location of the tower that a cell phone "pings" off of when the user makes a call. It found that Alltel provides a faxed listing of an electronic "Tower Dump" for specific times and dates. The listing is "no charge," but the company charges a flat rate of $500 for those searches.

Verizon Wireless, on the other hand, charges  $30-$60 for 15 minutes' worth of tower data, while AT&T charges $75 hourly (a minimum of two to four hours per tower) for a Cell Tower Dump or Cell Site Usage Report. Cell Site Usage also includes subscriber information for the location, date and time when a phone was used.

The Times also found that Sprint once billed the Raleigh, North Carolina, Police Department at a "reduced rate" of $50 for an historic tower search and added $30 more for a search of "L-Site GPS pings," while the ACLU reported that Sprint had billed the Phoenix Police Department $460 for the GPS "pings" over a two-day period in 2009.

"The bottom line is that our mobile phone companies should be working for us, their customers, not the police, says Nicole Ozer, an ACLU staff attorney.

Not only are the wireless providers profiting from your privacy by working with the police, they are lobbying to be able to continue to do so. Even as the debate rages over warrantless cell phone tracking, cell carriers are geared up to oppose legislation that would force the companies to publicly report the number of times their employees provide cell phone location information to police and federal agents.

Sen. Al Franken
One important proposal is California Senate Bill 1434, introduced by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), which would prohibit carriers from revealing data to police without a warrant. Wireless providers are joining together to fight it.

"These reporting mandates would unduly prevent us from insuring the public's safety and saving lives," AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile said in a joint statement.

The battle continues. Motivated by the ACLU research and news reports on the controversy surrounding  warrantless cell phone tracking, US Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) recently convened a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to gather support for the GPS Act. At the hearing, Franken unveiled a letter he had written to Attorney General Holder seeking information on Justice Department cell phone tracking activity, what the department's stance on the standard for requests for historical location data (cell sites, GPS data), and whether the department had changed its practices in the light of the Jones decision.

He is still awaiting a response from Justice.

On the legal front, with state and federal courts split in their decisions on whether warrantless phone tracking violates the Fourth Amendment, the tens of millions of Americans who use cell phones and smart phones will have to wait for the Supreme Court to be the final arbiter. In the meantime, they could just be tracking you -- warrant or not.

What Happens AFTER You Refuse a Police Search?

Flex Your Rights has been working for many years now to educate everyone we can about the importance of refusing police searches and otherwise knowing and asserting your constitutional rights when confronted by police. Unfortunately, even if you handle a police encounter perfectly, things can still get pretty ugly. This video discusses how to handle some of the challenges you can run into after asserting your rights:

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