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More Undercover Drug Cases Dropped Amid Growing SFPD Scandal

Location: 
San Francisco, CA
United States
Eight more criminal cases were dropped by prosecutors in connection with a looming scandal involving an undercover police unit accused of conducting illegal drug raids and falsifying police reports. The cases in San Francisco Superior Court involved the same officers previously accused of entering residential hotel rooms without warrants or consent and then allegedly lying about their actions on police reports. One officer was accused of falsely arresting a man for drug possession.
Publication/Source: 
The San Francisco Examiner (CA)
URL: 
http://www.sfexaminer.com/local/crime/2011/03/more-undercover-drug-cases-disappear-amid-growing-sfpd-scandal

West Virginia Police Kill Man Trying to Escape Drug Bust

Editor's Note: This year, Drug War Chronicle is going to try to track every death directly attributable to drug law enforcement during the year. We can use your help. If you come across a news account of a killing related to drug law enforcement, please send us an email at psmith@drcnet.org.]

This year's sixth drug law enforcement killing occurred Friday afternoon in Charleston, West Virginia, when officers from the Kanawha County Metro Drug Unit shot and killed a Detroit man after his car hit an officer as he attempted to flee a drug arrest. Police identified the dead man as Stiney Richards, 38.

Drug war takes a life in Charleston (Image via Wikimedia)
According to Charleston Police, undercover officers with the Metro Drug Unit made a large crack cocaine purchase from Richards, whom they said had a criminal record that included drug and weapons offenses. When they attempted to arrest Richards, he jumped in his car and attempted to flee, hitting one plainclothes officer as he did so. The officer was not seriously injured.

Other officers opened fire, or, as WSAZ-TV strangely put it, "fired back," mortally wounding Richards, who managed to drive a few blocks before crashing his car. Police have not said that Richards shot at them, or even that he was armed.

"Because the incident took place in Charleston our detectives are investigating," Lt. S.A. Cooper said. "The officers who actually discharged their weapons do not work for the Charleston Police Department but there were officers from numerous agencies at the scene."

Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants will review the case after police file a report, but he was already hinting at what the outcome of his review will be. "This shooting is like any other shooting in Kanawha County -- I have to look at the evidence and make a determination whether that shooting was justified or not," Plants said. "But these are people who put their lives on the line every day, perfect strangers yet willing to sacrifice their lives. In today's age, violence against a police officer is not that uncommon."

The Metro Drug Unit is a federally funded drug task force that has been in existence since the 1980s. It includes officers from the Charleston, South Charleston, Dunbar, St. Albans, and Nitro police departments, as well as the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department and agents from the DEA.

The killing of Richards was the second violent incident for the Metro Drug Unit in little more than a week. On January 28, a Charleston police detective was shot in the hand when an occupant of a house being raided on a drug search warrant opened fire, shooting through a closed door. Residents of the house had been the victims of a home invasion robbery days earlier.

Charleston, WV
United States

Louisiana Cop Kills Man in Drug Deal Gone Bad

Editor's Note: This year, Drug War Chronicle is going to try to track every death directly attributable to drug law enforcement during the year. We can use your help. If you come across a news account of a killing related to drug law enforcement, please send us an email at psmith@drcnet.org.]

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/port-allen-wafb.jpg
A Louisiana man became the third person to die so far this year during a drug law enforcement operation. Eric Williams, 18, was shot and killed Wednesday afternoon by an undercover narcotics officer in Port Allen in what police said was a drug buy that turned into an armed robbery attempt.

According to West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Mike Cazes, undercover narcotics agents were making buys in "known drug areas" when a woman and her boyfriend set up a deal. The narc was waiting in a motel room waiting for the woman to arrive so he could purchase $50 worth of Lortab. When the woman entered the motel room, she closed the door, but opened it again, and a masked man entered.

"Came through the door immediately shoved her down and started having a gun at the agent. The agent kicked him, gave him money he was asking for and started shooting," said Cazes, adding that Williams was trying to fire a loaded .45. "The only reason the agent's still alive is the bad guy, the gun he had was on safety."

Cazes said the agent shot Williams four times. The shooting is under investigation by the state police, but the sheriff said his agent did nothing wrong.

The woman and her boyfriend were jailed on $1 million bonds on charges of being a principal to armed robbery by use of a firearm.

Port Allen, LA
United States

Cops Used Fake Patient IDs to Buy Medical Pot; Was It Entrapment?

Location: 
MI
United States
Oakland County Sheriff's deputies used phony Michigan medical marijuana cards -- created on a county computer -- to trick state-approved medical marijuana providers into selling the drug to the police. Days after the drug buys, county narcotics agents raided two medical marijuana dispensaries. Defense attorneys for more than two dozen people arrested in the raids are crying foul, saying their clients were trapped into lawbreaking while trying to stay within the state law.
Publication/Source: 
Detroit Free Press (MI)
URL: 
http://www.freep.com/article/20101020/NEWS05/10200341/Cops-used-fake-patient-IDs-to-buy-medical-pot-was-it-entrapment-

Lethal Sting: How the War on Drugs Killed a College Student

Location: 
Tallahassee, FL
United States
The Tallahassee Police Department isn't getting any medals; they're the targets of a massive lawsuit. And Rachel Hoffman is dead, shot with the very gun the cops sent her to buy.
Publication/Source: 
The Huffington Post (CA)
URL: 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vince-beiser/lethal-sting-how-the-war-_b_767197.html

North Carolina Sheriffs Want to Know What Drugs You're Taking

Location: 
NC
United States
The North Carolina State Sheriffs' Association is seeking access to state computer records that identify which residents have prescriptions for painkillers and other controlled substances. Patient advocates say opening up people's medicine cabinets to law enforcement would deal a devastating blow to privacy rights.
Publication/Source: 
TIME (US)
URL: 
http://wellness.blogs.time.com/2010/09/09/some-state-sheriffs-want-to-know-what-drugs-youre-taking/

Jury Finds Officer "Justified" in Trevon Cole Shooting

Location: 
Las Vegas, NV
United States
As predicted, a Las Vegas coroner's inquest into the Trevon Cole shooting found the police officer's actions justified. Only one police officer has been found at fault in a shooting in the procedure's 30 year history. Officer Yant by contrast has shot peole three times, twice fatally.
Publication/Source: 
Las Vegas Review-Journal
URL: 
http://www.lvrj.com/news/officer--shooting-victim--made-me-do-my-job--as-testimony-continues-101234024.html?ref=024

Raid Victim Family May Hit Vegas Police with RICO Suit

(This article includes minor updates from the original version published 8/19/10.)

Andre Lagomarsino, the attorney representing the estate of Trevon Cole and his fiancé, Sequoia Pearce, said last Thursday he is considering a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) lawsuit against the Las Vegas Police Metropolitan Department in the shooting death of Cole in a June drug raid at the apartment shared by Cole and Pearce. In addition to a possible RICO claim, the lawsuit would assert wrongful death, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It would also assert civil rights violations.

Trevon Cole
"We are considering a RICO claim," Lagomarsino told the Chronicle. "The claim would say there is a pattern of criminal conduct by this organization. A similar claim was brought against the LAPD. It only takes two events to constitute a pattern under RICO," he said.

There is already one other questionable police shooting that could be the second event. Last month, Las Vegas police shot and killed Erik Scott, 39, outside a Costco store in Summerlin. There have been five officer-involved shootings in the city so far this summer and 17 this year, though Cole and Scott were the only fatalities among them.

Though best known for its criminal provisions targeting certain criminal enterprises with asset forfeiture and up to 20-year sentences per racketeering count, the RICO statute also has a provision allowing for civil lawsuits by plaintiffs claiming to have been harmed by those enterprises. Successful plaintiffs can collect treble damages.

Cole was fatally wounded by Detective Brian Yant as he and other officers executed a search warrant alleging that Cole had sold 1.8 ounces of marijuana to undercover officers in three buys over a series of week. Cole was unarmed. Yant said he shot after Cole made "a furtive movement," but Pearce, who was present during the raid, said Cole was on his knees with his hands raised and complying with commands when he was shot.

Yant has been involved in two other questionable shootings, one of them fatal. In that incident, Yant said the victim was threatening him with a gun, but the gun was found 35 feet away from the victim's body.

Yant also misidentified Cole as another Trevon Cole from Houston, Texas, despite the two men having different dates of birth, middle initials, ages, and appearances. He also mischaracterized the record of the Houston Trevon Cole, portraying him in the search warrant affidavit as a major drug dealer when his only arrests were marijuana possession misdemeanors. (See more detailed coverage of the raid and its aftermath here.)

When there is a police-involved fatal shooting in Las Vegas, it goes before a coroner's inquest to determine whether the officer involved was criminally negligent. That happened on Friday and Saturday, with the coroner's jury coming back with a verdict of "justifiable" on the shooting. The finding was not unanticipated, especially given the history of coroner's inquests there (only one police officer has been found criminally negligent in about 200 inquests since 1976, and that verdict was later overturned) and the one-sided nature of the inquest process (only the district attorney can present evidence and ask questions), it is considered unlikely that Yant will be found criminally negligent.

"I would guess they will find it justified, but I'm hopeful they will look at the fact that [Cole] had nothing in his hands," Lagomarsino said the day before the inquest began.

While Lagomarsino also cited Yant's history of shootings "under suspicious circumstances," he pointed a finger at the police department too. "This is cleared at higher levels," he said. "It is the policy and procedure of the Metro police to conduct these raids the way they do."

The Las Vegas attorney told the Chronicle last week that once the inquest was over he would file a lawsuit "within two or three weeks." He told local media Monday the lawsuit will now move forward, although he did not outline its precise shape.

Las Vegas, NV
United States

Coroner Probing Marijuana Raid Killing of Unarmed Man [FEATURE]

(Update: Officer Yant cleared by inquest as predicted. Family may bring RICO lawsuit.)

On the night of June 11, 21-year-old Trevon Cole and his nine months pregnant fiancé, Sequoia Pearce, were sitting at home in their Las Vegas apartment, settling in for a quiet Friday evening in front of the TV. But Cole didn't live to see the next day. Instead, he was the target of a drug raid and was shot and killed by a Las Vegas narcotics detective as he knelt on his bathroom floor, hands in the air. (Read our earlier coverage here.)

Trevon Cole, killed in his bathroom by a police officer, had just 1.8 ounces of marijuana
Since then, questions and outrage have mounted as the circumstances surrounding Cole's death have emerged. A coroner's inquest, which is done with all fatal shootings by Las Vegas police, is set for Friday. Given the history of such inquests -- only one police killing out of 200 in the past 35 years was found unjustifiable -- justice is unlikely to be done there.

The affidavit in support of the search warrant targeting Cole gave the impression that police thought they had a major drug dealer on their hands. Detective Brian Yant, the officer who wrote the warrant and who pulled the trigger on Cole, wrote that "almost all" drug dealers keep "sophisticated and elaborate" records and that police expected to find such records, as well as guns and drug paraphernalia. Cole had a "lengthy criminal history of narcotics sales, trafficking and possession charges," Yant wrote.

Police found no guns. They found no evidence of a "major drug dealer." They did find a small, unspecified amount of pot (Pearce contends they found no drugs and were angry they could not), a digital scale, a cell phone, and $702 in cash (of which $350 was found to have come from jewelry Pearce pawned days earlier to pay rent). Oh, and a spent .223 caliber rifle cartridge in the bathroom.

The search warrant affidavit also misidentified Cole, confusing him with another Trevon Cole from Houston, Texas. The other Trevon Cole had a different middle name, was seven years, older, is three inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter. His "lengthy criminal history"? Three misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests. The only criminal record the now dead Trevon Cole had was for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle as a teenager.

"Don't they ever run the dates of birth down there?" asked an incredulous David Doddridge, a retired 21-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department who now runs a private detective agency and is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

"The standard ID is name and date of birth," said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who is now an assistant professor of law, police science, and criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "They had a different initial for the middle name. It should have been obvious that this was not the same guy."

Part of the problem is pressure to perform, said Moskos. "These guys are judged by how many warrants they can get," he said. "But it's better to conduct one good warrant than five bad ones."

"Each squad is trying to serve the most warrants, get the most dope, so you have a tendency to exaggerate and embellish, and sometimes even fabricate on the warrants," said Doddridge. "They invent handguns inside the house so they can get a dynamic entry warrant, and then they go in, kicking down doors, rushing in with guns drawn, forcing everybody down on the floor. It's very scary, everyone is going in with guns drawn, they're sometimes shouting over each other, it's a very tense and dynamic situation and just a tremendous opportunity for somebody to get shot," he said.

"It's really crazy, a waste of time and money, but they have to justify their existence," said Doddridge. If they're not serving warrants, they'll get sent back to patrol. You have to produce."

According to the search warrant, police had made three undercover pot buys from the Trevon Cole they ended up shooting. The total haul was 1.8 ounces of marijuana and, also according to the warrant, when police wanted to make a big score -- $400 worth -- with Cole, the alleged major drug dealer, they had to reschedule because Cole didn't have that much on hand.

Not incidentally, under Nevada law, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is decriminalized. Yant and his dope squad buddies were going after Cole for allegedly selling them amounts of marijuana it wasn't even a crime to possess.

"Like other tragic incidents, this brings into question the need to use such force in raids on people who at best are being charged with a non-violent crime," said Mike Meno, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Especially in this case, where officers are coming into a house with guns drawn. We saw a man get killed and it turns out it wasn't even the man they were after."

Trevon Cole and his fiancé, Sequoia Pearce
"This is just another tragic incident in the failed war on marijuana," said Dave Schwartz of Sensible Nevada, which seeks marijuana law reform there. "People are being killed even for small amounts, and it just makes no sense. This is yet another death caused by prohibition, not by marijuana."

It is also another death caused by Detective Yant. The killing of Cole marked the third time Yant has controversially used his police firearm. In 2002, he shot and killed a robbery suspect, claiming the suspect, who was on the ground, aimed a weapon at him. But although the suspect's gun was found 35 feet away, coroner's inquest took only half an hour to find the shooting justified.

The following year, Yant shot and wounded a man with a baseball bat, saying he mistook the bat for a shotgun and that the man had attacked him. But the man said he never threatened Yant and dropped the bat before Yant fired. Since he wasn't killed, there was no coroner's inquest, but Yant was exonerated in a departmental investigation.

"Any time an officer is involved in three shootings, they may be justified, but it's a classic red flag example of when the department should wonder about the officer," said Moskos. "There are shoot/don't shoot scenarios where furtive movement may provide some justification for shooting, but this guy Cole didn't have a weapon. In hindsight, it's obvious he was no threat," he said.

"This guy Yant did a lot of bad things in this raid," said Moskos. "He got the wrong person, he shot an unarmed guy. The department certainly has to look at this officer."

Yant is on paid administrative leave pending the coroner's inquest and the results of a departmental investigation.

It could be that Yant is a case of the wrong guy in the wrong job for the wrong reasons. "Some guys like being street cops, some are more analytical and want to be detectives," said Doddridge. "Then you have the gung-ho types, maybe ex-military or wannabe military with their shaved heads. They want to get in on the action, they're the kind of people who gravitate to SWAT or narcotics. In these units, they are disproportionately gung-ho types. It's trouble on top of trouble," he said.

It wasn't always like that, Doddridge recalled. "Back in the day, if we had a drug warrant, we would just drive up in a black and white with our .38s, but now, somebody sells 1.8 ounces of marijuana, you call in the big boys. They have all this federal money, those Byrne grant funds, and they have to justify that. When you have a military mentality, you have to have an enemy, and that makes the war on drugs a war against the people."

"This looks like another fucked up raid and unnecessary death in the drug war," summed up Moskos. "Even in the best case scenario for police, doing undercover buys and raids for small amounts of marijuana seems like a waste of resources. Why do that?"

"The important thing to remember is that hundreds of raids like these occur across the country every year because we are militarizing our police forces and issuing orders to take down houses of people accused of nonviolent offenses," said Meno. "Trevon Cole's case is a perfect example of what can go wrong. He was sitting at home with his fiancé, there was nothing violent going on, and bang! -- he's dead. This was on a Friday night in Las Vegas," noted Meno. "You'd think there would be something more important officers could be doing on a Friday night."

And now for the coroner's inquest. It is performed by the Clark County District Attorney's office and overseen by a court hearing master with a jury of citizens hearing the facts. The goal is to simply find if the death was justified, excusable or criminal in nature.

But no one represents the dead person. The family of the deceased or their attorneys are not allowed to speak present evidence. They are not allowed to call witnesses who might contradict the police or prosecutors' version of events. They can submit written questions, but it is up to the judge to decide whether to ask them. [Editor's Note: The Chronicle has an appointment to interview Cole family attorney Andre Lagomarsino on Thursday and will be posting updated material then.]

The ACLU of Nevada has called the system a "story-telling exercise, an opportunity for the police, with the assistance of the DA, to tell their side of the story" and likened it to "the sound of one hand clapping." As noted above, in 34 years of inquests and 200 hearings, only one officer has been found criminally negligent.

Justice for Trevon Cole? Don't hold your breath. But the city of Las Vegas will most likely have to pay big time down the road once the inquest is done, and Cole's family then proceeds with its wrongful death lawsuit.

Las Vegas, NV
United States

DEA's "Project Deliverance" Will Undoubtedly Fail to Deliver

DEA acting chief Michele Leonhart, and her boss, US Attorney General Eric Holder, are bragging about a major, DEA-led operation that has netted 2,200+ arrests, with pounds of drugs and millions of dollars seized. "Project Deliverance" involved more than 300 law enforcement agencies, more than 3,000 DEA agents, and took 22 months. According to DEA's press release, they captured 1,262 pounds of methamphetamine, 2.5 tons of cocaine, 1,410 pounds of heroin, and 69 tons of marijuana, plus $154 million. Michele Leonhart announcing ''Project Deliverance'' Operationally, Deliverance was certainly a big project -- it's easy to see why they're excited. And for the thousands of people throughout the US who were arrested in it, it's a life-changing event, though for the worse. But will Project Deliverance make any real difference in drug use and the drug trade? Is the operation really a big deal, when examined next to the reality of drug use and the drug trade in the United States today? I hate to be a wet blanket, but if history is a guide, Project Deliverance will have no long-term impact on the drug trade. Though notable in its scale, the operation is only one of many carried out by the US and allied governments over decades. During that time, the measure of drug availability -- price, an increase implies a product is less available, relative to its demand* -- has gone in the opposite of the intended direction, and dramatically. For example, the average US street price of cocaine is less than a fifth in real terms than it was in 1980. Previous drug sweeps have seen their temporary gains erased in just one or two weeks. The reason is that the big sounding numbers touted by Leonhart, while large for the agency and our government, are small compared with the drug trade. Deliverance's 2.5 tons of cocaine constitutes less than one percent of the 300 metric tons of cocaine the government estimates are consumed annually in the US. So does the 69 tons of marijuana. They did get a few percent of the heroin, if numbers don't deceive, but even that's still small. And the 2,200 alleged dealers and traffickers arrested in Project Deliverance make up a similarly tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the US by the illegal drug trade. Some drug businesses will doubtless be extinguished by Project Deliverance, but others will have little difficulty replacing the lost supply or filling the open positions. And how much powder or weed did the investigators let go by during the 22 months it took to complete the operation? How much will they have to let slip by during the months or years it takes to mount the next one? In an uncharacteristically "big picture" review published a few weeks ago, the Associated Press declared the 40-year drug war a failure by every measure. Will media follow that lead and go beyond the surface in their reporting on Project Deliverance? I have a few suggestions for those intrepid reporters who would like to:
  • Ask DEA or DOJ spokespersons if they expect the substances targeted in the sweep to be less available to US consumers of them, and if so for how long.
  • Ask them if previous operations, individually or collectively, have had that effect. If they say yes, ask them to be specific as to what their evidence is, and compare it with numbers like the aforementioned cocaine prices.
  • Do some follow-up, say two or three weeks from now. Ask government officials, cops who walk the drug beat, and drug users, what if any difference they saw in the supply of the targeted drugs, and if so if they see still any. Follow up again in one or two months. See if DEA will give you early access to the price data.
Be forewarned, though, DEA reps will probably be less excited to address those questions than they were for the press conference. * Nitpickers and drug war defenders may point out that demand for cocaine has also dropped since 1980, and that the price drop could be explained that way. No dice -- frequent, "hardcore" cocaine and other drug use remained roughly constant despite a drop in the number of "casual" users, and it's the frequent users who account for the vast majority of the consumption.

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