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Law Enforcement Call on DOJ to Respect State Marijuana Laws [FEATURE]

Tuesday morning, former Baltimore narcotics officer Neill Franklin delivered a letter signed by 73 current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors, and federal agents to Attorney General Eric Holder at the Justice Department in downtown Washington , DC, urging him not to ignore the wishes of voters in Colorado and Washington state who voted to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana.

LEAP leader Neill Franklin delivers letters to the Justice Department. (leap.cc)
Franklin is the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which supported Amendment 64 in Colorado and Initiative 502 in Washington. Both measures won with 55% of the vote in this month's elections.

"As fellow law enforcement and criminal justice professionals we respectfully call upon you to respect and abide by the democratically enacted laws to regulate marijuana in Colorado and Washington," the letter said. "This is not a challenge to you, but an invitation -- an invitation to help return our profession to the principles that made us enter law enforcement in the first place."

The Obama administration's response to the legalization votes could help define its place in the history books, LEAP warned.

"One day the decision you are about to make about whether or not to respect the people's will may well come to be the one for which you are known. The war on marijuana has contributed to tens of thousands of deaths both here and south of the border, it has empowered and expanded criminal networks and it has destroyed the mutual feeling of respect once enjoyed between citizens and police. It has not, however, reduced the supply or the demand of the drug and has only served to further alienate -- through arrest and imprisonment -- those who consume it," the letter said.

"At every crucial moment in history, there comes a time when those who derive their power from the public trust forge a new path by disavowing their expected function in the name of the greater good. This is your moment. As fellow officers who have seen the destruction the war on marijuana has wrought on our communities, on our police forces, on our lives, we hope that you will join us in seeking a better world," the letter concluded.

The LEAP letter is only the latest manifestation of efforts by legalization supporters to persuade the federal government to stand back and not interfere with state-level attempts to craft schemes to tax and regulate marijuana commerce. Members of the Colorado congressional delegation have introduced legislation that would give the states freedom to act, while other members of Congress, notably Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX), have called on the Obama administration to "respect the wishes of voters in Colorado and Washington." Frank and Paul are cosponsors of a pending federal legalization bill.

"We have sponsored legislation at the federal level to remove criminal penalties for the use of marijuana because of our belief in individual freedom," Frank and Paul wrote in a letter to President Obama last week. "We recognize that this has not yet become national policy, but we believe there are many strong reasons for your administration to allow the states of Colorado and Washington to set the policies they believe appropriate in this regard, without the federal government overriding the choices made by the voters of these states."

"We seem to be at a turning point in how our society deals with marijuana," said Franklin Tuesday. "The war on marijuana has funded the expansion of drug cartels, it has destroyed community-police relations and it has fostered teenage use by creating an unregulated market where anyone has easy access. Prohibition has failed. Pretty much everyone knows it, especially those of us who dedicated our lives to enforcing it. The election results show that the people are ready to try something different. The opportunity clearly exists for President Obama and Attorney General Holder to do the right thing and respect the will of the voters."

"During his first term, President Obama really disappointed those of us who hoped he might follow through on his campaign pledges to respect state medical marijuana laws," continued Franklin. "Still, I'm hopeful that in his second term he'll realize the political opportunity that exists to do the right thing. Polls show 80% support for medical marijuana, and in Colorado marijuana legalization got more votes than the president did in this most recent election."

"From a public safety perspective, it's crucial that the Obama administration let Colorado and Washington fully implement the marijuana regulation laws that voters approved on Election Day," added LEAP member Tony Ryan, a retired 36-year Denver Police veteran. "There's nothing the federal government can do to force these states to arrest people for marijuana possession, but if it tries and succeeds in stopping the states from regulating and taxing marijuana sales, cartels and gangs will continue to make money selling marijuana to people on the illegal market. Plus, the states won't be able to take in any new tax revenue to fund schools."

At a Tuesday noon press conference, Franklin and other LEAP members hammered home the point.

"LEAP members have spent the majority of their careers on the front line of the war on drugs and have seen the failure of prohibition," he said. "We call now to end prohibition and embrace a new drug policy based on science, facts, and the medical field."

Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper told the press conference the war on marijuana was essentially a war on youth, especially minority youth, that sours police-community relations.

"I have come to believe that the war on marijuana has made enemies of many law-abiding Americans, especially many young, black, Latino, and poor Americans," Stamper said. "The law and the mass incarceration behind it have set up a real barrier between police and the community, particularly ethnic communities."

Legalization and regulation will help change that negative dynamic, Stamper said.

"This frees up police to concentrate on violent, predatory crimes, those crimes that really scare people, drive property values down, and diminish the quality of our lives," he said. "We're convinced that by working with the community, including those victimized by these laws, we can build an authentic partnership between police and the community and create true community policing, which demands respect for local law enforcement. By legalizing we have a chance to significantly reduce race and class discrimination. Watch what we do, we will use these states as a laboratory, and the sky will not fall."

"I joined this movement when I was made aware the war on drugs was a war on our community," said Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP. "Instead of being protected, we were being targeted. We don't feel like the police are protecting us; instead, they have declared war on our young men and women. The amount of resources being used in this war to divide the community is why we have so many incidents between law enforcement and our community. We know that come Friday and Saturday night there will be a ring of law enforcement personnel ringing our community looking to make those low-level drug arrests."

"I believe the regulation and legalization of marijuana is not only long overdue, but will make our communities safer," Huffman continued. "I am very hopeful that our president, who has some experience of his own with marijuana use, which didn't prevent him from becoming a strong leader, will see the light and get rid of these approaches that do nothing but condemn our people to a life of crime because they have felonies and are no longer employable. Instead of treating them like criminals, maybe we can treat them like people with health problems."

The Obama administration has yet to respond substantively to this month's victories for marijuana legalization. Nothing it says or does will stop marijuana from becoming legal to possess (and to grow in Colorado) by next month in Washington and by early January at the latest in Colorado, but it could attempt to block state-level attempts to tax and regulate commercial cultivation and distribution, and it has some months to decide whether to do so. Tuesday's letter and press conference were part of the ongoing effort to influence the administration to, as Franklin put it, "do the right thing."

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle Book Review Essay: Two Faces of the Drug War

Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate's Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History (2012, Lyons Press, 375 pp., $24.95 HB)

Operation Fly Trap: LA Gangs, Drugs, and the Law, by Susan Phillips (2012, University of Chicago Press, 174 pp., $18.00 PB)

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/cornbread-mafia.jpg
It's a long way from the Bluegrass Country of central Kentucky to the bungalowed ghettos of South Central Los Angeles, and it's an even greater distance culturally than geographically. In the first locale, the white descendants of Catholic distillers turned moonshiners tend their crops in hidden hollows, distrust of police by now second nature. In the second, the black descendants of post-World War II factory workers scramble to survive in a post-industrial landscape, slinging crack and dodging gang violence, with the police viewed as little more than an occupying force.

Cornbread Mafia and Operation Fly Trap focus on two groups of people separated by time, race, and culture, but united by a common adversary: the repressive apparatus of the drug war. Cornbread Mafia tells the story of some bad ol' good ol' boys who made Kentucky synonymous with top-grade domestic marijuana production in the '80s and who generated the largest domestic grow op bust ever, while Operation Fly Trap tells the story of a small group of LA cocaine suppliers and crack dealers in the early '00s who were wrapped up and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences in a pioneering use of innovative policing and prosecutorial strategems.

While both books critically address the interaction of groups of socially-defined criminals with a  law enforcement complex grown up to feed off them, they feel and read quite differently. Cornbread Mafia is written by a journalist with an intimate knowledge of Lebanon, Kentucky and surrounding Marion County, and it reads like a true crime thriller, full of hillbilly noir and great and crazy tales, except that unlike most of the genre, it is sympathetic to and gives voice to the deviant "others." It's the kind of dope tale you pick up and don't put down until you're done.

It centers on a 1987 Minnesota pot cultivation operation that was busted when an early snowfall killed the surrounding corn hiding it. Organized by Marion County grower and trafficker Johnny Boone, the massive Minnesota grow was the largest ever busted, and by the time the feds had unraveled things, some 70 Kentuckians had been indicted. Although not a one of them rolled over on his peers, many of them went away for long stretches, sentenced under new RICO laws designed to bring the pain to the backwoods pot scofflaws. Boone himself did 15 years.

But that bust and the indictments that followed -- much ballyhooed, of course, by back-patting DEA officials, federal prosecutors, and state law enforcement honchos -- were a long way down a road that wound back to those Prohibition era moonshiners -- Lebanon's location as hot spot on the 1950s and 1960s chitlin circuit, where black performers including a skinny guitarist named Jimi Hendrix performed, and the return of reefer-exposed Vietnam War vets in the 1960s and 1970s.

I recall traveling to Washington, DC, to attend the annual 4th of July smoke-in in 1978. Before DC legends Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band played their set, a gangly man in a suit bearing a down home accent took to the stage, introduced himself as Kentucky lawyer and legalization advocate Gatewood Galbraith, and threw large colas of weed into the crowd, yelling, "This is the real Kentucky Bluegrass!" I didn't have a clue then, learned about Galbraith and the Appalachian pot growing scene over the intervening years, but didn't really know the back story about the whole Kentucky scene. Now, thanks to Cornbread Mafia, I feel like I do, and Higdon tells it with grace and empathy.

It's a story that isn't over. Once Johnny Boone got out of federal prison, he couldn't help but return to his old ways. In 2008, he got busted growing 2,400 plants in a neighboring county. Facing life in federal prison as a three-striker, Boone vanished. The feds still haven't found him.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/operation-fly-trap.jpg
Operation Fly Trap, on the other hand, is written by an academic, published by an academic press, and reads like it. Granted, ethnographer Susan Phillips knows her stuff -- she spent years working in the neighborhood before even embarking on this project -- and she brings heart and passion to her writing, crafting a compelling and fascinating narrative, but it can still be heavy going at times. Still, even if sometimes wrapped a little too tightly in academic-speak, Phillips is exposing and addressing vital issues of race, class, and the structuring of criminality, and her critique is important and incisive.

Operation Fly Trap, a project of a multi-agency, state-federal joint task force aimed at gang suppression, drew its name from Tina Fly, the central figure in a crack cocaine operation in two Bloods-controlled South Central neighborhoods. Before it was done, it had wrapped up two dozen people from the tightly knit community, many from the same families, and sent them off to long federal prison sentences under anti-gang sentencing enhancements.

Like military commanders patting themselves on the back over the accuracy of their weapons, law enforcement and prosecutors congratulated themselves on the "precision" of their strike against the Tina Fly operation and the surgical removal of the cancer from the community.

But Phillips calls into question both the success of the operation and the means used to conduct it, and along the way, shines a bright light on the ways in which the impoverishment of communities like South Central and their ravaging by both criminals and those sent to catch them is a matter of public policy -- not merely personal pathology, the narrative offered up by all those men in suits at their press conferences.

Indeed, it is the situation that is pathological when the very criminals being hunted are the community's pillars, its breadwinners, and when their removal does not remove criminality, but enhances it. That pathology is only enhanced by the ongoing struggle between the community's criminals and the police, the use of snitches who sow mistrust and suspicion on the street, and by our refusal as a polity to do anything but keep reproducing those conditions that generate such predictable outcomes.

Phillips also documents how, as criticism of the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders grew ever louder, the use of anti-gang policing and prosecutions only intensified. "Operation Fly Trap was an attempt to make [mass incarceration] more palatable by recasting nonviolent drug offenders as intimately related to the lethal violence of gangs," she writes. Along with drug sentencing reform and new gang legislation, the Fly Trap task force "represented a need to re-present the drug war as healthy and justifiable."

It's worth noting that although the Fly Trap defendants were pursued under the banner of the war on gangs, they charges for which they were prosecuted were drug charges. And Operation Fly Trap was by no means unusual. In fact, Phillips notes, more than 5,000 gang investigations were mounted nationally between 2001 and 2010, resulting in 57,000 arrests and 23,000 convictions. With sentencing reforms having taken some of the bite out of the federal crack laws, the gang enhancements allow prosecutors to still hold the threat of decades of prison over the heads of those rounded up.

Cornbread Mafia and Operation Fly Trap focus in on different episodes of our perpetual war against the criminality we create through drug prohibition. Both are exceptionally useful in providing what is too often missing in drug policy discussions: the broader context. Journalist Higdon basically gives us a history of Marion County and situates those back woods pot criminals squarely within it, while ethnographer Higdon lays out the stark landscape of black LA, emphasizes how public policy decisions have created that landscape, and shows how other public policy decisions -- around economic policy, education, access to health and mental health services, incarceration as a response to social problems -- have created a milieu where Operation Fly Trap can be recreated in perpetuity.

Read Cornbread Mafia because it's a rollicking gas, but read Operation Fly Trap, too, because it's an eye-opening, sobering look at the whole penalization industry we're created to deal with the unruly underclasses we've created.

Richard Lee's Mom Wows 'Em at NORML [FEATURE]

With a few more appearances like the one she put in at the 41st National NORML Conference this past weekend in Los Angeles, silver-haired Texas Republican Ann Lee won't be introduced as "Richard Lee's Mom" for much longer. The 84-year-old Lee wowed the crowd with her feisty appearances and her call for a Republican revolution against marijuana prohibition, threatening to become a movement star in her own right, and not merely as the mother of the man who founded Oaksterdam University and put 2010's California Proposition 19 on the ballot.

Ann Lee, 2012 NORML conference (radicalruss.com)
"Republicans believe in three things: limited government, fiscal responsibility, and less intrusion in your private life," Lee said in remarks last Thursday. "The drug war is against all the principles of the Republican Party. How about RAMP (Republicans against Marijuana Prohibition)?" she demanded to cheers of approval.

Lee explained how, like most people, she had believed her government when it told her marijuana was bad and dangerous, but that her son's advocacy for the herb after he began using it medicinally in the wake of a spinal injury helped her change her mind. And her role as an advocate for Prop 19 helped her sharpen her arguments.

"I fell hook, line, and sinker for the propaganda my government put out," she said. "I've come to question the government more than I ever did."

It isn't just pot, it's prohibition, Lee told the crowd, adding that she had read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow and considered it a masterful explanation of the racial politics hiding behind prohibition.

"We've taken freedom away from way too many young blacks and Latinos."

The down home octogenarian also drew a long round of applause when she addressed the NORML Women's Alliance panel at the end of its Saturday session, reiterating her remarks about creating RAMP and urging the panel and the crowd not to forego opportunities for creating new allies.

Lee's first appearance was on a panel about demographic groups that have not been friendly to marijuana law reform. But if the white-haired Texas Republican woman demographic is slipping away from the prohibitionists, the end may indeed be nigh.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Mexico's "Caravan for Peace" Heads to Washington [FEATURE]

The Mexico-based Caravan for Peace and Justice and its American allies are now more than halfway through their 6,000-mile, 27-city journey to focus attention on the drug war's terrible toll in both countries. After beginning two weeks ago in San Diego, the caravan has now traversed California, Arizona, New Mexico, and miles and miles of Texas, and on Wednesday, was set to join with African-American and other activists to march over the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma, Alabama.

rally in El Paso
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is an enduring symbol of the civil right struggles of the 1960s and was the scene of the Bloody Sunday of March 7, 1965, when armed police officers attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators attempting to march to the state capitol in Montgomery.

While on Wednesday, the theme of the day's events was to be "the new Jim Crow" and the mass criminalization and incarceration of large numbers of African-Americans through the war on drugs, that is only one of the themes the caravan is emphasizing in its bid to put the harms of the drug war on full view for the American public and its politicians.

Led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, the caravan said it wants put faces on Mexico's drug war dead -- who are too often assumed to have been "bad" by virtue of having been killed.

"Our purpose is to honor our victims, to make their names and faces visible," Sicilia said. "We will travel across the United States to raise awareness of the unbearable pain and loss caused by the drug war -- and of the enormous shared responsibility for protecting families and communities in both our countries."

vigil in Brownsville
But it's not just about honoring the victims of the drug war; the Caravan also explicitly seeks policy changes on both sides of the border, not only to drug policy. These policy areas and the Caravan's recommendations include:

"Drug War policies: We propose the need to find a solution, with a multidisciplinary and intergenerational approach that places individuals, and their welfare and dignity, at the center of drug policy. We call on both the Mexican and the U.S. community to open and maintain a dialogue about alternatives to Prohibition based on evidence, and which is inclusive in its considerations of the diverse options for drug regulation.

"Arms trafficking: We propose that the President of the United States immediately prohibit the importation of assault weapons to the United States. Assault weapons are often smuggled into Mexico, and have also been used too many times against innocent civilians in the US. We propose giving authorities effective regulatory tools and adequate resources to halt arms smuggling in the border regions, especially in border states like Arizona and Texas.

"Money laundering: We call for governments on both sides of the border to take concrete steps to combat money laundering. We propose that financial institutions be held accountable for preventing money laundering through increased government surveillance, investigations, fines and criminal charges. We also call for the Treasury Department to immediately implement Congress’ 2009 call to close the "prepaid/stored value cards" loophole.


visit to the Sacred Heart Convent, Houston
"US foreign aid policy: We call for a change from the United States' "war" focus to one of human security and development that contemplates promoting the healing of Mexico's torn social fabric. We propose the immediate suspension of US assistance to Mexico's armed forces. The "shared responsibility" for peace that both governments share must begin with each country complying with its own respective national laws.

"Immigration: We call for a change in the policies that have militarized the border and criminalized immigrants. These policies have generated a humanitarian crisis driven by unprecedented levels of deportations and incarceration of migrants. In addition, these policies have also inflicted immeasurable environmental damage. We call for protecting the dignity of every human being, including immigrant populations that have been displaced by violence who are fleeing to the US seeking safe haven and a better life."

 

The Caravan is a natural outgrowth of Sicilia's Mexican Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity (MMPJD), which he formed after his son and several comrades were kidnapped and murdered by drug cartel gunmen in Cuernavaca in March 2011. It is designed to put names and faces on the estimated 60,000 dead, 10,000 disappeared, and 150,000 displaced by the prohibition-related violence pitting the so-called cartels against each other and the Mexican state.

memorial representing victims of the Monterrey Casino Royale attack
In Mexico, the MMPJD struck a deep chord with a population increasingly angered and frightened by the often horrific violence raging across the country. Caravans organized by the MMJPD crisscrossed the country last year before bringing 100,000 people to mass in Mexico City's huge national plaza, the Zocalo in June. The mass outpouring of grief and anger convinced President Felipe Calderon to meet with Sicilia, who brought along photos of some of the dead depicting them as happy, smiling human beings.

"The powers that be were trying to tell us that all those who were dying were just criminals, just cockroaches," Sicilia explained. "We had to change the mindset, and put names to the victims for a change."

In Texas last week, the caravan traveled the breadth of the state, stopping in El Paso, Laredo, McAllen, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston before heading into the final half of the tour. In Austin, groups such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and local NORML affiliates joined the travelers.

El Paso
"I think what is important is the binational nature of this caravan," said Roberto Lovato, the founder of Presente.org, an online Latino advocacy organization. "The drug war has been a fantastic failure here in the United States, if you look at more than 2 million people being incarcerated, families destroyed by that incarceration, a trillion of our tax dollars utterly wasted. So we have law enforcement officers who lost their brothers and their sisters in the law enforcement world, and people who have lost family members in Mexico."

"The drug problem isn’t just an American problem, and the harm that prohibition of drugs causes in the world is phenomenal," said LEAP member and Texas resident Terry Nelson, who spent more than three decades in federal law enforcement. "Hundreds of thousands are dying in the Western Hemisphere alone, it’s got to stop," he said. "The drug war is a war on people, it's not a war on drugs."

In Houston, state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) presented Sicilia with a non-binding resolution praising his efforts and criticizing the drug war.

Javier Sicilia with the LEAP van
"Although our nation spends in excess of $40 billion a year combating the drug trade, the United States remains the principal destination for drugs produced in and transported through Mexico," the resolution said. "Moreover, many of the firearms found at crime scenes in Mexico have been traced to sources in the United States; interdiction initiatives have not resulted in the decline of drug abuse."

Along the way, the caravan has touched on a number of intersecting issues. Javier Sicilia himself told Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to treat his prisoners better, and the caravan has visited immigrant detention centers to criticize US policies toward undocumented immigrants. Similarly, in Houston, group members purchased a pistol and an AK-47 at gunshow, then dismantled the rifle, transforming into a peace symbol in line with its calls on the US government to crack down on the flow of firearms south of the border. And above all, the call for the respect for human rights has been a constant on the caravan.

The caravan is set to arrive in Washington, DC, on September 10 for events scheduled the following day. So far, it is succeeding in its aim of bringing attention to the harms of the drug war on both sides of the border -- a Google news search for "caravan for peace" now shows 2,660 results. That number was at 145 when last we wrote about the caravan two weeks ago.

Many more photos are available on the Caravan's Flickr page.

NAACP Regional Chapters Endorse CO, OR, WA Marijuana Initiatives

All three marijuana legalization initiatives on state ballots this year have won the endorsement of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) regional organizations this week. Last Wednesday, the Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming conference of the NAACP endorsed the Colorado initiative, and last Friday, the Alaska, Washington, and Oregon conference of the NAACP endorsed the Washington initiative. That same conference endorsed the Oregon initiative earlier this month.

The Colorado initiative, Amendment 64, has already won the support of a growing list of organizations, including the Democratic and Libertarian Parties of Colorado, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. Similarly, the Washington initiative, I-502, also has a growing list of endorsers, including the King County (Seattle) Bar Association, the Washington State Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, the Green Party, the state Democratic Party, and numerous county and local Democratic Party groups. Likewise, the Oregon initiative, Measure 80, is busily picking up endorsements as well, including that of the Libertarian Party presidential ticket.

"In ending the prohibition against adult use of marijuana, we might affect mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on African-Americans and other people of color," said Rocky Mountain states regional NAACP president Rosemary Harris-Lytle.

"Treating marijuana use as a crime has not only failed, it has perpetuated racial inequities through unequal enforcement," said Pacific Northwest regional president Oscar Eason, Jr.  "African Americans are no more likely than whites to use marijuana, but we are much more likely to be arrested for it."

Every endorsement counts in what will be a nail-biter of a campaign in both states. According to recent polls, the Colorado and Washington initiatives are leading, but are only hovering around the 50% support level. It takes 50% plus one to win, and veteran initiative watchers say initiatives should be polling at least 60% as the campaigns head into the home stretch because some support is soft and likely to be peeled off by last minute opposition campaigning.

In Colorado, an early August Public Policy Polling survey of likely voters had Amendment 64 leading 49% to 40% and trending upward from an earlier PPP poll that had it leading 46% to 42%, but still not over 50%. In Washington, a July Public Policy Polling survey had I-502 leading 50% to 37% and trending upward over an earlier PPP poll that had it leading 47% to 39%, but still not over 50%. The battle looks to be a little tougher in Oregon, where a July Public Policy Polling survey asking a generic question about whether marijuana should be legalized had 43% saying yes and 46% saying no.

Look for in-depth reporting on these three marijuana legalization initiatives and their prospects after the Labor Day holiday.

Obama Administration to Review Clarence Aaron Commutation Request

Clarence Aaron
The Obama administration is seeking a fresh review of Clarence Aaron's request for commutation of his cocaine trafficking sentence, the Washington Post reported Wednesday. Aaron, a first-offender, was sentenced to three life terms in 1993 for his minor role in a cocaine deal. He has since become a poster child for sentencing reform and, more recently, for pardons and commutation reform.

The Justice Department will also undertake a broader review of recommendations for presidential pardons. Under scrutiny will be the Office of the Pardon Attorney, which has been under increasing criticism since the Post and Pro Publica published stories in December about racial disparities in the process and more stories in May about Clarence Aaron's ordeal.

The December stories found that whites were four times more likely to win pardons and commutations than blacks, while the stories on Aaron showed that he was denied a commutation in 2008 despite having the support of the prosecutors' office that tried him and the judge who sentenced him, after the pardon attorney didn't tell the White House about the support.

Aaron filed a new commutation request in 2011, and that is pending. Since the Washington Post/Pro Publica articles came out, his case has been taken up prominent figures, including members of Congress, law professors, and civil rights advocates. Many of those supporters have called for a broader investigation into the pardon process.

The presidential power to pardon or commute as been gradually atrophying even as prisoner numbers climbed in recent years. President Bill Clinton pardoned nearly 400 people, while President George W. Bush pardoned only 189. So far, President Obama has pardoned only 22 people and commuted the sentence of just one.

Washington, DC
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

Supreme Court Grants Lesser Sentences in "Pipeline" Crack Cocaine Cases

The US Supreme Court ruled last Thursday that decreased crack cocaine sentences approved by Congress in 2010 also apply to people who were convicted but not yet sentenced when the law took effect. The decision could result in reduced sentences for thousands of so-called "pipeline" federal crack cocaine defendants.

Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act and President Obama signed it into law after years of complaints about the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine and the racial impact of those disparities. Under laws passed in the late 1980s, it took 100 times as much powder cocaine to generate mandatory minimum prison sentences as it did for crack cocaine. The act reduced the quantity disparity to 18:1.

The decision in two cases of men convicted on federal crack charges but sentenced after the act became law came on a narrow 5-4 vote. The two cases were consolidated in a single ruling in Dorsey v. United States.

In one case, Edward Dorsey was arrested in 2008 and pleaded guilty in July 2010 to possessing 5.5 grams of crack with the intent to distribute. He was sentenced to a mandatory minimum 10 years; under the new law, his sentence would likely have been around four years.

In the other case, Corey Hill was convicted in 2009 of selling 53 grams of crack in 2007 and sentenced to 10 years in prison; under the new law, his sentence would have been around five years.

Federal appeals court split on whether the new law should be applied retroactively, prodding the Supreme Court to take up the cases and bring clarity to the issue.

The court split in what has become almost standard for the Roberts court. All four liberal justices weighed in on the side of extending the sentencing reductions and were joined by swing justice Anthony Kennedy. The court's four staunch conservatives all dissented.

Sentencing reform advocates welcomed the ruling.

"We are thrilled with the court's decision," said Julie Stewart, executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which had filed a friend of the court brief in the case. "We considered it patently unjust to make these pipeline defendants serve longer sentences under a scheme that was completely repudiated by Congress. As the court found, doing so would have flouted the will of Congress, which called on the US Sentencing Commission to lower crack cocaine sentences 'as soon as practicable' after the Fair Sentencing Act was signed into law. Especially exciting is the fact that Justice Breyer's opinion for the majority recognized that people who were sentenced after August 3, 2010 to an old law sentence are eligible to seek relief in federal courts."

Washington, DC
United States

NY GOP Kills Marijuana Decriminalization Reform

New York decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, but New York City police continue to arrest 50,000 people a year for pot possession after stopping-and-frisking them, then tricking them into emptying their pockets and revealing their baggies of weed, triggering the misdemeanor offense of public possession of marijuana.

March 2012 protest of NYC stop and frisk violations
In a bid to end that practice, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the Democratically-controlled Assembly moved to reform the decriminalization law by removing the public possession provision with Assembly Bill 10581, but Monday night, Republicans and their Conservative Party allies in the Senate effectively killed it.

The Senate Republicans caved under pressure from Conservative leader Mike Long, who threatened to not allow any Republicans who supported the bill to appear on the Conservative Party line. The Senate then refused to take up the bill. That means the mass arrests, predominantly of young people of color, for what should, under state law, be only a ticketable offense, will continue, costing the state tens of millions of dollars each year.

The Republican failure to act comes in the face of widespread law enforcement support for the reform, including NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the district attorneys in all five New York City boroughs and suburban Nassau County, and even the New York City Patrolman's Benevolent Association. Kelly called the reform "a balanced approach," while Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance said it would bring greater "safety and fairness" to the criminal justice system and it was "the right thing to do."

"The Senate Republicans have single-handedly decided to continue ruining tens of thousands of lives -- mostly those of young people of color -- every year. Opposing law enforcement and the clear political consensus in the state is not just heartless -- it's a political miscalculation that will come to haunt them," said Dr. Divine Pryor, executive director of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions.

"Even Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have come out in support of this legislation. So what's holding up the Senate from passing smart reforms that will eliminate the tens of thousands of unlawful arrests taking place in the city every year?" said Alfredo Carrasquillo, community organizer with VOCAL New York.

Last week, the New York City Council passed a resolution by an overwhelming margin calling for an end to racially biased, costly, unlawful arrests. The resolution, introduced by Council Members Melissa Mark-Viverito and Oliver Koppell, was cosponsored by a majority of council members. The resolution came a day after hundreds of community activists went to Albany to deliver thousands of signatures to demand the New York State Senate pass legislation to decriminalize marijuana possession in public view.

"The New York Senate Republicans are doing what Republicans do best at the federal and local level -- they are obstructing progress and paralyzing government. The Republican Conference in the State Senate is completely out of touch with our communities of color in New York City and because of their inaction, tens of thousands more of our young people of color will be arrested before the end of this year, saddling them with a criminal record," said Mark-Viverito. "The governor, our mayor, the police commissioner, the city council, five district attorneys and criminal justice advocates are all on the same page here. Marijuana was decriminalized in 1977; all we are trying to do is close the 'in public view' loophole that is allowing thousands of unjust arrests of black and Latino youth in our communities."

"It wasn't too long ago that we referred to the 'three men in a room' when discussing the leadership structure in Albany. Now when we talk about leadership in the Senate, we should talk about 'one guy in Brooklyn,' said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "While we are disappointed by the lack of action, we're not going anywhere. This campaign for reform has already scored a major victory by bringing this issue to the attention of New Yorkers and the entire country. We cannot and will not accept a situation where the laws are applied differently to different people based on their race or ethnicity or where they live. We'll keep pushing for reform, for fairness, equality, and justice. Given the overwhelming support by law enforcement for this proposal, I think Majority Leader Skelos and even Mr. Long will come to do what’s right."

Albany, NY
United States

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