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Feds' New Cell Phone Spying Device Raising Privacy Concerns [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by independent investigative journalist Clarence Walker, freelancewriter82@gmail.com

Blocked by a Supreme Court decision from using GPS tracking devices without a warrant, federal investigators and other law enforcement agencies are turning to a new, more powerful and more threatening technology in their bid to spy more freely on those they suspect of drug crimes. That's leading civil libertarians, electronic privacy advocates, and even some federal judges to raise the alarm about a new surveillance technology whose use has yet to be taken up definitively by the federal courts.

StingRay cell phone spying device (US Patent photo)
The new surveillance technology is the StingRay (also marketed as Triggerfish, IMSI Catcher, Cell-site Simulator or Digital Analyzer), a sophisticated, portable spy device able to track cell phone signals inside vehicles, homes and insulated buildings. StingRay trackers act as fake cell towers, allowing police investigators to pinpoint location of a targeted wireless mobile by sucking up phone data such as text messages, emails and cell-site information.

When a suspect makes a phone call, the StingRay tricks the cell into sending its signal back to the police, thus preventing the signal from traveling back to the suspect's wireless carrier. But not only does StingRay track the targeted cell phone, it also extracts data off potentially thousands of other cell phone users in the area.

Although manufactured by a Germany and Britain-based firm, the StingRay devices are sold in the US by the Harris Corporation, an international telecommunications equipment company. It gets between $60,000 and $175,000 for each Stingray it sells to US law enforcement agencies.

[While the US courts are only beginning to grapple with StingRay, the high tech cat-and-mouse game between cops and criminals continues afoot. Foreign hackers reportedly sell an underground IMSI tracker to counter the Stingray to anyone who asks for $1000. And in December 2011, noted German security expert Karsten Nohl released "Catcher Catcher," powerful software that monitors a network's traffic to seek out the StingRay in use.]

Originally intended for terrorism investigations, the feds and local law enforcement agencies are now using the James Bond-type surveillance to track cell phones in drug war cases across the nation without a warrant. Federal officials say that is fine -- responding to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) and the First Amendment Coalition, the Justice Department argued that no warrant was needed to use StingRay technology.

"If a device is not capturing the contents of a particular dialogue call, the device does not require a warrant, but only a court order under the Pen Register Statute showing the material obtained is relevant to an ongoing investigation," the department wrote.

The FBI claims that it is adhering to lawful standards in using StingRay. "The bureau advises field officers to work closely with the US Attorney's Office in their districts to comply with legal requirements," FBI spokesman Chris Allen told the Washington Post last week, but the agency has refused to fully disclose whether or not its agents obtain probable cause warrants to track phones using the controversial device.

And the federal government's response to the EFF's FOIA about Stingray wasn't exactly responsive. While the FOIA request generated over 20,000 records related to StingRay, the Justice Department released only a pair of court orders and a handful of heavily redacted documents that didn't explain when and how the technology was used.

The LA Weekly reported in January that the StingRay "intended to fight terrorism was used in far more routine Los Angeles Police criminal investigations," apparently without the courts' knowledge that it probes the lives of non-suspects living in the same neighborhood with a suspect.

Critics say the technology wrongfully invades technology and that its uncontrolled use by law enforcement raised constitutional questions. "It is the biggest threat to cell phone privacy you don't know about," EFF said in a statement.

ACLU privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian told a Yale Law School Location Tracking and Biometrics Conference panel last month that "the government uses the device either when a target is routinely and quickly changing phones to thwart a wiretap or when police don't have sufficient cause for a warrant."

"The government is hiding information about new surveillance technology not only from the public, but even from the courts," ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye wrote in a legal brief in the first pending federal StingRay case (see below). "By keeping courts in the dark about new technologies, the government is essentially seeking to write its own search warrants, and that's not how the Constitution works."

Lye further expressed concern over the StingRay's ability to interfere with cell phone signals in violation of Federal Communication Act. "We haven't seen documents suggesting the LAPD or any other agency have sought or obtained FCC authorization," she wrote.

StingRay pricing chart (publicintelligence.net)
"If the government shows up in your neighborhood, essentially every phone is going to check in with the government," said the ACLU's Soghoian. "The government is sending signals through people's walls and clothes and capturing information about innocent people. That's not much different than using invasive technology to search every house on a block," Soghoian said during interviews with reporters covering the StingRay story.

Advocates also raised alarms over another troubling issue: Using the StingRay allows investigators to bypass the routine process of obtaining fee-based location data from cell service providers like Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Comcast. Unlike buying location data fro service providers, using StingRay leaves no paper trail for defense attorneys.

Crack defense attorney Stephen Leckar who scored a victory in a landmark Supreme Court decision over the feds' warrantless use of a GPS tracker in US v. Jones, a cocaine trafficking case where the government tracked Jones' vehicle for weeks without a warrant, also has concerns.

"Anytime the government refuses to disclose the ambit of its investigatory device, one has to wonder, what's really happening," he told the Chronicle. "If without a warrant the feds use this sophisticated device for entry into people's homes, accessing private information, they may run afoul of a concurring opinion by Justice Alito, who ruled in US v Jones whether people would view unwarranted monitoring of their home or property as Constitutionally repugnant."

Leckar cited Supreme Court precedent in Katz v. US (privacy) and US v. Kyllo (thermal imaging), where the Supreme Court prohibited searches conducted by police from outside the home to obtain information behind closed doors. Similar legal thinking marked February's Supreme Court decision in a case where it prohibited the warrantless use of drug dogs to sniff a residence, Florida v. Jardines.

The EFF FOIA lawsuit shed light on how the US government sold StingRay devices to state and local law enforcement agencies for use specifically in drug cases. The Los Angeles and Fort Worth police departments have publicly acknowledged buying the devices, and records show that they are using them for drug investigations.

"Out of 155 cell phone investigations conducted by LAPD between June and September 2012, none of these cases involved terrorism, but primarily involved drugs and other felonies," said Peter Scheer, director of the First Amendment Center.

The StingRay technology is so new and so powerful that it not only raises Fourth Amendment concerns, it also raises questions about whether police and federal agents are withholding information about it from judges to win approval to monitor suspects without meeting the probable cause standard required by the Fourth. At least one federal judge thinks they are. Magistrate Judge Brian Owsley of the Southern District of Texas in Corpus Christi told the Yale conference federal prosecutors are using clever techniques to fool judges into allowing use of StingRay. They will draft surveillance requests to appear as Pen Register applications, which don't need to meet the probable cause standards.

"After receiving a second StingRay request," Owsley told the panel, "I emailed every magistrate judge in the country telling them about the device. And hardly anyone understood them."

In a earlier decision related to a Cell-site Simulator, Judge Owsley denied a DEA request to obtain data information to identify where the cell phone belonging to a drug trafficker was located. DEA wanted to use the suspect's E911 emergency tracking system that is operated by the wireless carrier. E911 trackers reads signals sent to satellites from a cell phone's GPS chip or by triangulation of radio transmitted signal. Owsley told the panel that federal agents and US attorneys often apply for a court order to show that any information obtained with a StingRay falls under the Stored Communication Act and the Pen Register statute.

DEA later petitioned Judge Owsley to issue an order allowing the agent to track a known drug dealer with the StingRay. DEA emphasized to Owsley how urgently they needed approval because the dealer had repeatedly changed cell phones while they spied on him. Owsley flatly denied the request, indicating the StingRay was not covered under federal statute and that DEA and prosecutors had failed to disclose what they expected to obtain through the use of the stored data inside the drug dealer's phone, protected by the Fourth Amendment.

"There was no affidavit attached to demonstrate probable cause as required by law under rule 41 of federal criminal procedures," Owsley pointed out. The swiping of data off wireless phones is "cell tower dumps on steroids," Owsley concluded.

But judges in other districts have ruled favorably for the government. A federal magistrate judge in Houston approved DEA request for cell tower data without probable cause. More recently, New York Southern District Federal Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein approved warrantless cell-site data.

"The government did not install the tracking device -- and the cell user chose to carry the phone that permitted transmission of its information to a carrier," Gorenstein held in that opinion. "Therefore no warrant is needed."

In a related case, US District Court Judge Liam O'Grady of the Northern District of Virginia ruled that the government could obtain data from Twitter accounts of three Wikileakers without a warrant. Because they had turned over their IP addresses when they opened their Twitter accounts, they had no expectation of privacy, he ruled.

"Petitioners knew or should have known that their IP information was subject to examination by Twitter, so they had a lessened expectation of privacy in that information, particularly in light of their apparent consent to the Twitter terms of service and privacy policy," Judge O'Grady wrote.

A federal judge in Arizona is now set to render a decision in the nation's first StingRay case. After a hearing last week, the court in US v. Rigmaiden is expected to issue a ruling that could set privacy limits on how law enforcement uses the new technology. Just as the issue of GPS tracking technology eventually ended up before the Supreme Court, this latest iteration of the ongoing balancing act between enabling law enforcement to do its job and protecting the privacy and Fourth Amendment rights of citizens could well be headed there, too.

Medical Marijuana Update

There is plenty of action in state legislatures, the battle over rescheduling continues, a Maine dispensary gets called out for using pesticides, and much more. Let's get to it:

National

Last Friday, Americans for Safe Access petitioned the DC Circuit Court for a rehearing before a full panel in its fight to force the federal government to reschedule marijuana. The move comes after a three-judge panel in January granted plaintiffs standing, but denied the appeal on its merits. In so doing, it set a near impossible standard for forcing rescheduling.

California

Last Thursday, prosecutors in Vallejo dropped charges against dispensary operator Matt Shotwell. The move marked an ignominious end to a series of a dozen dispensary raids conducted by Vallejo Police in early 2012. At least six dispensaries were raided, some repeatedly, but now cases against all six have now been dropped. The police raids came after the city council voted to impose taxes on dispensaries.

On Tuesday, the Concord city council approved an outdoor cultivation ban. The ban came despite only 14 complaint calls in the city of 120,000 residents. Council members cited concerns about public safety and "odiferous blight." Officials did say enforcement of the ban would be "complaint driven."

Colorado

On Tuesday, an audit found problems in the state's medical marijuana enforcement division. A report from the state auditor found that a lack of funding for the program led to a lack of consistent enforcement and a nearly two-year delay in reviewing license applications. Problems mentioned included a failure to quickly review applications, a failure to follow state law, and removing marijuana from dispensaries under disciplinary review and a failure to make sure seized marijuana is destroyed properly. The report also criticized the Department of Revenue for spending too much on capital projects and then laying off staff members, leading to long delays and mistakes in reviewing applications.

Florida

On Wednesday, activists were meeting with House Speaker Will Weatherford in an effort to get a pending medical marijuana bill moving. Weatherford has been blocking the bill, House Bill 1139, from getting a hearing or moving forward. No word at press time on the meeting results.

Illinois

Last Friday, the sponsor of a medical marijuana bill said it was just "one or two" votes shy of passing in the House. Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) is the author of the medical marijuana bill, House Bill 1.

Maine

On Monday, state regulators said a dispensary was violating state rules by using pesticides on plants it was growing. Wellness Connection of Maine was ratted out by one of its own employees at its Auburn grow site, and investigators subsequently found pesticides present, as well as 20 other violations of the rules for growing marijuana. Wellness Connection said it would stop using pesticides and make other changes, too. State regulators will allow the dispensary to sell the pesticide-treated plants, but it must inform patients that chemicals were used in their growth. Wellness Connection, which runs half of the state's medical marijuana clinics, must now contact all prior and current patients to tell them pesticides were used in the products they purchased or are purchasing, and that they have stopped using the chemicals designed to keep bugs away.

Maryland

On Monday, a medical marijuana bill passed in the House. The bill, House Bill 1101, would set up a medical marijuana commission to which the academic medical centers could apply for permission to administer marijuana to patients within a research-focused program. Marijuana would be grown either by state-licensed growers or by the federal government.The bill now goes to the Senate.

Michigan

Last Friday, the Ypsilanti planning commission approved a new cultivation facility. It will be the second to operate in the city. The grow op won unanimous approval from the commission, on the condition that it construct a sidewalk and close a curb cut. Another facility has already been approved by the commission, but is awaiting site plan approval.

Nevada

Last Monday, Sen. Richard Segerbloom introduced a bill that would allow dispensaries to operate in the state. The bill, Senate Bill 374, would regulate dispensaries. Under the state's current medical marijuana law, there is no provision for dispensaries.

New York

On Tuesday, matching medical marijuana bills were introduced in the Assembly and Senate. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried filed Assembly Bill 6357 and Senator Diane Savino filed companion legislation, Senate Bill 4406. The bills would create a tightly regulated system of medical marijuana supply, complete with patient registries, but would not allow patients or designated caregivers to grow their own medicine. Patients would be limited to possessing no more than 2.5 ounces.

West Virginia

Last Thursday, Del. Mike Manypenny introduced a medical marijuana bill. In previous years, he has gone it alone, but this time around he has nine cosponsors. The bill is House Bill 2961.

US Supreme Court Limits Front Door Drug Dog Sniffs

The US Supreme Court Tuesday ruled that a drug dog's sniff of a residence's front door is a search under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and that police must therefore obtain a search warrant before unleashing the hounds. The case was Florida v. Jardines.

While the high court has previously ruled that drug dog sniffs of vehicles stopped on the highway, packages at shipping centers, or luggage at airports do not constitute a search under the Fourth, it sets a higher standard for people's homes. When it comes to the Fourth Amendment, "the home is first among equals," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the 5-4 majority.

"A police officer not armed with a warrant may approach a home and knock, precisely because that is no more than any private citizen might do," Scalia reasoned. "But introducing a trained police dog to explore the area around the home in hopes of discovering incriminating evidence is something else. There is no customary invitation to do that."

The case arose when a Miami police detective investigating an anonymous tip about a marijuana growing operation had his drug dog sniff the base of the home's front door. The dog "alerted" on the scent of marijuana, and only then did police obtain a warrant to search the home. They then found 25 pounds of pot inside and arrested Jardines.

Jardines was charged with trafficking in marijuana, but the trial court approved his motion to suppress the evidence on the basis that the drug dog sniff amounted to a warrantless search. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the trial court, and the state of Florida then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The 5-4 decision sundered the typical liberal-conservative split on the court. Joining the conservative Scalia in the majority was conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, along with liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

In a concurring opinion joined by Ginsburg and Sotomayor, Kagan went further than Scalia, arguing that the drug dog sniff violated Jardines' reasonable expectation of privacy.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Justice Stephen Breyer, rejected the privacy argument and opined that the search should have been upheld.

"A reasonable person understands that odors emanating from a house may be detected from locations that are open to the public," Alito wrote. "A reasonable person will not count on the strength of those odors remaining within the range that, while detectable by a dog, cannot be smelled by a human."

But that was the minority opinion. As of now, if the police want to use a drug dog to sniff a home's front door, they need to get a warrant.

Washington, DC
United States

Federal Court Again Blocks Missouri College Drug Testing Plan

For the second time, a Missouri federal district court judge has granted a preliminary injunction blocking Linn State Technical College from drug testing all first-year and some returning students. The college had sought to implement the unprecedented drug testing regime in the fall of 2011, but had been blocked after the ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed suit on behalf of six students.

US District Judge Nanette Laughrey issued a preliminary injunction stopping the program and the reporting of early test results in the fall of 2011, but the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals overruled her in January, finding her order too broad. The ACLU of Eastern Missouri then filed a narrower challenge, which Laughrey has now granted.

"Today's decision affirms the privacy and personal dignity of hundreds of students who were forced to supply their college with urine samples before they could take any classes," said Tony Rothert, the ACLU-EM's legal director. "Without a compelling need, a search of your bodily fluids is exactly the type of unreasonable search and seizure that the Constitution prevents the government from imposing."

Linn State had argued that it should be allowed to drug test students without any suspicion because some of its programs, such as aviation maintenance and heavy equipment operations, had a public safety component. But the ACLU-EM argued that its program was overly broad, and in granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Laughrey cited the testimony of a mechanical engineering professor at the college who said his students handled nothing more dangerous than pencils.

While the federal courts have allowed suspicionless drug testing in limited circumstances -- in occupations affecting public safety, among drug law enforcement personnel, and among limited sets of high school students -- they have generally deemed it a violation of the Fourth Amendment's proscription against unwarranted searches and seizures. The Linn State case is the first one known where a college sought to test a broad swath of the student population without any particularized suspicion.

The case will be argued in July. In the meantime, the preliminary order barring drug testing is in effect and suggests that Judge Laughrey will grant a permanent injunction then.

Jefferson City, MO
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

Legislatures are in session across the land, and that's reflected in our update this week. Bills are moving, generally, though not always in the right direction. Meanwhile, Arkansas looks ahead to 2014, and Oakland wants back in the Harborside case. Let's get to it:

Arkansas

Last Monday, activists submitted a medical marijuana ballot initiative to the state attorney general's office. Arkansans for Medical Cannabis plans to try again in 2014 after their 2012 initiative surprised just about everybody by coming up just short with 49% of the vote.

California

Last Wednesday, the city of Oakland filed notice that it will appeal a federal magistrate's decision to dismiss its lawsuit in support of Harborside Health Center in its ongoing battle with the federal government. Oakland sued after federal prosecutors moved to seize the property where Harborside is located.

Also last Wednesday, Butte County prosecutors dropped charges against a dispensary operator in the wake of Fourth District Court of Appeal's reversal of the conviction of San Diego dispensary operator Jovan Jackson. That decision held that members of a collective do not need to actually work growing plants. Prosecutors said they were dropping a case against dispensary operator Rick Tognoli because the Jackson ruling "has made it almost impossible to prosecute dispensaries that are disguised as collectives and making supposedly no profit."

Hawaii

On Tuesday, the House passed two medical marijuana bills. House Bills 667 and 668 are designed to improve the state's existing medical marijuana program. They now go before the state Senate.

Iowa

On Monday, a medical marijuana bill was pronounced dead even though it was approved by a Senate subcommittee. The chairman of the subcommittee, Sen. Joe Bolkom (D-Iowa City), said the bill is unlikely to advance because it lacks support in the full committee. A similar bill was rejected by a House subcommittee earlier this session.

Illinois

On Wednesday, a medical marijuana bill won a House committee vote. The bill, House Bill 1, passed the House Health and Human Services Committee on an 11-4 vote and now goes before the full House. Qualified patients would be able to obtain marijuana from one of up to 60 dispensaries, which would acquire marijuana from up to 22 cultivation centers. The Illinois Department of Agriculture, Department of Health, and Department of Financial & Professional Regulation would regulate the cultivation, acquisition, and distribution of marijuana.

Montana

Last Thursday, two minor players in a dispensary were sentenced to time served by a federal judge. Doran Leslie Hewitt had kept patient records and Travis Birdinground had delivered medical marijuana to patients. They had worked for Eastern Montana Cannabis. The judge in the case has sentenced all five Eastern Montana Cannabis defendants to terms shorter than the federal guideline ranges.

New Jersey

On Monday, a Senate committee approved a bill to protect medical marijuana patients on organ transplant lists. The bill would ensure that a person's use of medical marijuana would not prohibit him from receiving needed medical care, including organ transplants. It was approved by the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. The bill, S-1220, would provide that a registered, qualifying patient's authorized use of medical marijuana would be considered equivalent to using other prescribed medication rather than an illicit substance and therefore would not disqualify the person from needed medical care, such as an organ transplant. It now heads to floor vote in the Senate.

Oregon

Last Thursday, a bill that would add PTSD to the list of qualifying debilitating medical conditions passed the Senate Health and Healthcare Committee. It now goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate Bill 281 passed out of committee on a 4-1 vote.

Appeals Court Ruling Throws Wrench in Maritime Drug Prosecutions [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by Clarence Walker, freelancewriter82@gmail.com

America's war on drugs overseas was dealt a heavy blow in the federal courts late last year. In November, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta handed prosecutors a crushing defeat by reversing the multiple drug convictions of four foreign nationals arrested after their fishing vessel with 760 kilos of cocaine was seized off the Panamanian coast three years ago. That cocaine was valued at between $180 million and $200 million.

Coast Guard drug bust, 2004
The defendants were convicted and sent to prison under a never before challenged provision of the federal Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. The ruling reversing their convictions has called into question current US war drug tactics on foreign territory and territorial waters.

If upheld, the decision in US v. Bellaizac-Hurtado, could prevent the US from prosecuting suspected smugglers caught within the 12-mile territorial waters of South and Central America countries, and it may hinder US authorities from entering the 12-mile limit themselves while carrying out anti-narcotics operations. That would wreak havoc with US drug enforcement offensives such as Operation Martillo (Hammer), which has been aimed squarely at Central America and has so far seized over $2 billion worth of drugs from sea-going vessels.

Federal prosecutors haven't said whether they will appeal, but it would be a surprise if they didn't.

As the justices at the 11th Circuit noted, the Bellaizac-Hurtado case is the first taken up during modern times to determine whether the "Offenses clause" of the US Constitution can legally allow US prosecution of drug trafficking crimes in another country. The Offenses clause gives Congress the right to "define and punish… Offenses against Law of Nations."

The court found that the use of the clause to justify the prosecution of Bellaizac-Hurado under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act is illegal because drug trafficking was not a crime under the Law of Nations when the Constitution was written more than two centuries ago, nor is it a crime under "customary international law" now. The pursuit of felony crimes overseas is limited by customary international law, and the international community has not treated drug trafficking under these premises as a crime, the court held.

"Drug trafficking was not a violation of customary international law during the 'Founding of the US law' and drug trafficking is not a violation of customary international law today," the opinion stated. "Because drug trafficking is not a violation of customary international law, we hold that Congress exceeded its power, under the Offences Clause, when it proscribed the defendants' conduct in the territorial waters of Panama. And the United States has not offered us any alternative ground upon which the Act could be sustained as constitutional. As applied to these defendants, the Act is unconstitutional, and we must vacate their convictions."

While the ruling found the act could not be used to prosecute suspected drug smugglers arrested within a country's 12-mile territorial waters, it does not impact cases against smugglers using "stateless" submarines, nor impede the ability of US authorities to prosecute felonies committed on "the high seas."

The potentially precedent-setting case began in 2010 when US Coast Guard patrols in Panamanian waters spotted a wooden fishing vessel operating without lights or a flag. Suspicious, the Coast Guard alerted the Panamanian Navy and the chase was on. The Navy officers chased the vessel until the suspects abandoned the ship and fled on land deep into Panama's jungle. Following a thorough search of the vessel the Coast Guard discovered "760 kilos of cocaine." The feds had scored a mother lode. Meanwhile the four occupants of the vessel were arrested the next day in the jungle by Panamanian National Frontier Service.

Through a diplomatic agreement, Panama handed the captured men over to the US for prosecution.They were indicted in Florida's Southern District in Miami for conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine aboard a vessel subject to US jurisdiction under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act.

They were convicted and sentenced to federal prison. Their attorneys, led by Miami defense attorney Tracey Dreispul, appealed. The Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act was unconstitutional because it exceeded Congress' constitutional powers under the Offenses Clause, they argued.

The Justice Department responded that "drug trafficking is an offense against 'Law of Nations' as applied to the defendants' conduct -- -subject to Universal Jurisdiction because when Congress enacted the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act, it stated that drug trafficking is 'universally condemned' and a threat to the security and societal well-being of the United States." Prosecutors also argued that "the US federal district court had lawful jurisdiction over the cocaine because the defendants had been operating a vessel without a flag or national identification, and that the Panamanian government consented to have the men prosecuted in the United States."

But the appeals court in Atlanta wasn't buying it. "Offenses against Laws of Nations can only be interpreted in accordance with principles of customary international law because international law proscribes which conduct may be punished as an Offense against the Laws of Nations," the court held.

In other words, Congress doesn't get to define what constitutes customary international law.

"Where does the government get off on by prosecuting people they don't have the power to prosecute?" asked attorney Stephen Leckar, counsel for the defense in the landmark US v. Antoine Jones GPS drug trafficking case, in an interview with the Chronicle. "Where is the evidence that the drugs were headed for the US market to be distributed?"

"This basically was a Panamanian internal matter and their government is saying 'United States, you clean this up for us,'" Miami lawyer Phillip Horowitz, who represented one of the defendants, told the Miami Herald.

The ruling could have a cascading effect, impacting some of the thousands of drug smuggling cases stemming from offshore arrest. Legal experts predict that if the ruling withstands appeal, other convicted drug smugglers may go free if they, too, were arrested in foreign territorial waters by international police, then turned over to US for prosecution under "Offences against Laws of Nations."

Those defendants need to act, though, said Florida defense attorney David Silverstein. "Any defendants convicted under the same set of facts in Bellaizac-Hurtado must file a writ of habeas corpus within two years after the opinion was issued," he told the Chronicle.

With their convictions now voided, it remains to be seen if Bellaizac-Hurtado and his codefendants will now be prosecuted by Panamanian authorities. If so, let's hope they get credit for time served. Luis Carlos Hurtado did 25 months, Pedro Angulo-Rodallega and Albeiro Gonzales did 36 months, and Yimmie Bellaizac-Hurtado is still doing his 90-month sentence pending resolution of the appeals. The others have been deported.

Atlanta, GA
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

From the village board to the halls of Congress, medical marijuana is popping up all over. And there's action at various state houses, too. Let's get to it:

National

Last weekend, Americans for Safe Access hosted the National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference in Washington, DC. The conference featured numerous panelists, as well as lobbying on Capitol Hill.

On Monday, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced the States' Medical Marijuana Patients Protection Act (House Resolution 689) at a press conference surrounded by attendees at the National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference. The bill would get the federal government out of states where medical marijuana is legal.

Arizona

Last Thursday, an unapproved dispensary was shut down in Kingman and its proprietors arrested on a variety of marijuana-related and weapons charges. Police seized several pounds of marijuana, $7,000 in cash, and a shotgun.

California

Earlier this month, Shasta County moved a lawsuit filed against it by a medical marijuana collective from state to federal court, and the attorney representing county supervisors has already filed a motion there to dismiss it. The Medicine Man Collective Spiritual Center Corporation sued in state Superior Court in January, naming the supervisors, the county sheriff, and three deputies as defendants. The suit charges that the county conspired to deprive the collective of its contractual, constitutional and state rights by enacting a ban on dispensaries. The collective closed its Main Street doors in May 2011 after being evicted following implementation of the ban in 2010 and its finalization the following year.

Last Thursday, the LA city council voted to approve a third dispensary measure for the May ballot. This third measure is the council's own and would allow about 100 dispensaries to stay open, restrict them from locating near schools and churches, and increase taxes on them. One of the other measures would allow a similar number of dispensaries to stay open, while the other would allow most of the hundreds of currently existing dispensaries to stay open. The initiatives come after the council tried to impose a total ban last year.

On Tuesday, Butte County supervisors adopted a cultivation ordinance. The measure prohibits outdoor marijuana gardens on lots smaller than 0.5 acre. It allows up to 12 plants (six mature and six immature) on parcels larger than 0.5 acre but smaller than 1.5 acre. On parcels smaller than 3 acres, 36 plants (18 mature and 18 immature) are allowed. The total allowable number of plants tops out at 99 on property larger than 40 acres. The gardens have set-back requirements that increase as the lots grow, and the plants have to be screened from view with fencing. Grows are prohibited within 1,000 feet of schools and parks. The growers have to be able to prove they have been county residents for a year, and there has to be written proof the landowner is aware of the garden and approves of its existence. The ordinance allows  indoor gardens in free-standing buildings of 120 square feet on lots anywhere in county jurisdiction.

Florida

On Tuesday, a statewide poll had support for medical marijuana at 69%. The poll showed strong support among Democrats and independents and even among Republicans, 56% of whom said they supported marijuana. The poll comes as its sponsor, People United for Medical Marijuana, pushes for medical marijuana to come to the Sunshine State.

On Wednesday, a medical marijuana bill was filed. The bill is Senate Bill 1250.

Iowa

On Sunday, a statewide poll found that 58% support legalizing medical marijuana. That's down six points from a similar poll in 2010. The poll comes as the Iowa legislature considers medical marijuana bills.

Massachusetts

On Tuesday, the Westborough Board of Health supported zoning for dispensaries. The board did not reach agreement on whether Westborough should ban dispensaries or whether to zone or ban home grows for medical use. The town planning board has already proposed a zoning bylaw that would ban both dispensaries and home grows. It goes before voters at the annual town meeting on March 16.

Montana

Last Thursday, two more medical marijuana providers were sentenced to federal prison terms. Ross Pattison and Brandon Strecker were partners in Eastern Montana Cannabis. Pattison got 20 months and Strecker got a year and a day. They are only the latest Montana medical marijuana providers to be sent to federal prison after a spring 2011 crackdown by the DEA and the Justice Department.

Nevada

Last Friday, legislators held a hearing on problems with access to medical marijuana. During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, members acknowledged that it is almost impossible for the state's 3,600 card holders to acquire their medicine. Sen. Tick Segerblom (D-Las Vegas) said after the hearing that he soon will introduce a bill to set up a regulated system where marijuana is grown at farms and then distributed and taxed through licensed dispensaries.

New Hampshire

Last Thursday, a House committee held a hearing on a pending medical marijuana bill. The bill, House Bill 573, would allow patients to grow up to four plants or obtain their medicine through one of five state-licensed dispensaries. Similar bills have twice passed the legislature since 2007, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. John Lynch (D). New Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) supported the bills as a legislator, but has expressed concerns that the system be tightly regulated.

Oklahoma

On Monday, a medical marijuana bill died in the legislature. The bill, Senate Bill 710, would have allowed patients to possess up to eight ounces and grow up to 12 plants. It would also have allowed state-sanctioned collectives. It was killed in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee after members heard testimony. The bill was defeated 6-2 in a party line vote.

Washington

On Monday, the Spokane city council approved a six-month moratorium on new dispensaries. The council feared a proliferation of marijuana businesses before the state finishes writing its rules for legal non-medical marijuana commerce. Spokane currently has about a dozen dispensaries.

Federal Appeals Court Blocks Florida Welfare Drug Test Law

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta Tuesday upheld a preliminary injunction blocking Florida's 2011 law requiring welfare applicants to take and pass a drug test. The court held that mandatory, suspicionless drug testing violated the Fourth Amendment's proscription against warrantless searches and seizures.

The decision came in Lebron v. Secretary, Florida Department of Children and Families, in which Navy veteran, single father, and university student Luis LeBron applied for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds, but refused to be drug tested. His challenge to the law led to a federal district court's preliminary injunction halting the implementation of the law. The 11th Circuit's ruling Tuesday upheld the preliminary injunction.

Federal courts have generally found random, suspicionless drug testing to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment, but have carved out two "special needs" exceptions: for public safety (allowing testing of pilots, truck  drivers, and police doing drug enforcement) and children (allowing testing of students involved in athletic or extracurricular activities). The 11th Circuit held that the Florida law did not fall within those exceptions.

The state of Florida "presented no empirical evidence to bolster its special needs argument that suspicionless drug testing of TANF applicants is in any way warranted," the court held. "There is nothing so special or immediate about the government’s interest in ensuring that TANF recipients are drug free so as to warrant suspension of the Fourth Amendment."

"Today, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in affirming a preliminary injunction halting Florida's law mandating suspicionless drug testing of TANF applicants, set important precedent, which will hopefully curtail other states from following in Florida's stampede over individuals' Fourth Amendment rights, said Shawn Heller, a co-counsel on the case. "As Judge Jordan succinctly stated in his concurrence, 'constitutionally speaking, the state's position is simply a bridge too far.'" (Heller first joined the case while on staff at the Florida Justice Institute, which argued the case as co-counsel to the ACLU of Florida.)

"The 11th Circuit's decision deals a devastating blow to any state's attempt to impose suspicionless drug testing as a condition of receiving governmental benefits," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, which had filed an amicus brief in the case. "We hope that lawmakers will choose to honor the constitution rather than scapegoat poor people in efforts to address perceived drug problems."

In that amicus brief, the Drug Policy Alliance was joined by the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, Physicians and Lawyers for National Drug Policy, the Legal Action Center, Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, National Employment Law Project, Child Welfare Organizing Project, and National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

The brief argued that Florida’s drug testing scheme does not achieve any of its purported goals of protecting the well-being of children, promoting the employability of person on public assistance and assuring fiscal integrity, and does not pass the "special needs" test that is required to justify otherwise unconstitutional searches by government officials.

The ruling comes as public benefits drug testing measures continue to be introduced -- and sometimes advanced -- in states across the country. Some of those bills attempt to overcome the Fourth Amendment obstacles cited by the appeals court here by attempting to set up a "reasonable suspicion" assessment before mandating drug testing.

Atlanta , GA
United States

US Supreme Court Upholds Drug Dog Search of Truck

The US Supreme Court Tuesday upheld the use of police dog's sniff of a truck, finding that training and testing records were sufficient indicators of the dog's reliability and gave police probable cause for the search. The high court in 2005 upheld the legality of highway drug dog searches; in this case, the court focused on the reliability of drug dog searches.

In deciding the case, the high court reversed a decision from the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida court had held that a wide array of evidence was necessary to establish probable cause for the search, including field performance records that would indicate how many times the dog had falsely alerted. Without such records, the Florida court held, police could not establish probable cause.

Tuesday's ruling came in Florida v. Harris, in which Clayton Harris had been pulled over by a police officer in Liberty County in 2006. The drug dog, Aldo, alerted to the truck's door handle, the officer searched the truck, and methamphetamine precursor chemicals were found. Clayton was arrested on meth-related charges.

Harris was again pulled over by the same officer while out on bail, and Aldo again alerted on his vehicle. This time the vehicle search came up empty. Harris's attorneys challenged Aldo's reliability in part because of this second alert that turned up nothing. The Florida Supreme Court agreed with their argument that the dog's performance in the field needed to be assessed in order to determine probable cause for the search.

But not the US Supreme Court. It unanimously reversed the decision.

A drug dog's "satisfactory performance" in a certification or training program provided sufficient probable cause to trust its alert, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. "The question -- similar to every inquiry into probable cause -- is whether all the facts surrounding a dog's alert, viewed through the lens of common sense, would make a reasonably prudent person think that a search would reveal contraband or evidence of a crime," Kagan wrote. "A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test."

The case is one of two Florida drug dog cases before the Supreme Court this session. In the other, the high court takes up the question of whether a drug dog can sniff the front doorstep of a home without a search warrant. The Supreme Court has upheld drug dog searches of vehicles on the highway and packages at delivery service warehouses, but in other cases has shown greater deference to Fourth Amendment requirements at residences.

Washington, DC
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a key case on whether localities can ban dispensaries, and medical marijuana bills died in two Midwest states, and there's more news, too. Let's get to it:

California

Last Thursday, the Obama administration sought to dismiss a lawsuit by the city of Oakland defending its ability to issue permits for dispensaries. Oakland had sued the feds after US prosecutors moved against the Harborside Health Center, seeking to shut it down. The Justice Department argued that the city was using the wrong legal remedy, but Oakland argued that shutting down Harborside would send tens of thousands of patients into the streets seeking medicine, posing a threat to public safety in a city with crime problems. No ruling was made.

Also last Thursday, the LAPD raided a massive grow up that supplied dispensaries. LAPD officers and US Homeland Security gang agents found 1,500 pounds of marijuana and several firearms. Police said the warehouse grow did about $7.6 million in business every 60 days, and supplied numerous dispensaries in Southern California. Authorities also allege it was shipping marijuana to the Midwest and East Coast. Four people were arrested; their names have not been released.

On Monday, San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis dropped the charges against two medical marijuana patients. The move came in the cases of Clint Guidry and Cameron Mitchell, and represented a setback for the staunchly anti-medical marijuana Dumanis.

On Tuesday, LA City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said dispensaries should be allowed to operate in the city. Up for reelection, the formerly anti-dispensary Trutanich said he was endorsing a city council initiative that would allow the 100 to 180 retailers that existed before a fall 2007 city moratorium on dispensaries to essentially carry on so long as they follow certain rules. A second initiative also set for the ballot would allow virtually all of the city's hundreds--possibly up to a thousand--dispensaries to stay open.

Also on Tuesday, the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a key dispensary ban case. The issue is whether the city of Riverside's ban on dispensaries violates the state's medical marijuana laws. Questioning by the justices suggested that they were prepared to agree with the city that the state constitution gives cities wide policing power over land use and suggested that the state's medical marijuana laws have not undercut that authority.

On Wednesday, DEA agents and San Bernardino police raided a chain of dispensaries and a private residence. The raiders hit Kush Concepts at three locations, where they marched patients out of the dispensaries. City officials said there are 41 dispensaries in San Bernardino.

Also on Wednesday, an appeals court upheld Tehama County's cultivation ordinance. A group of medical marijuana patients sued over the ordinance in 2010, arguing it was unconstitutional and conflicted with the Compassionate Use Act. The county prevailed in Superior Court, and that decision was appealed. Now that appeal has been lost.

Colorado

Last Tuesday, the first applications for Fort Collins dispensary licenses were submitted. The city had had 21 dispensaries that were forced to close when voters chose to impose a ban in 2011. The ban was overturned by voters in November, and now the dispensaries are coming back.

Iowa

Last Thursday, legislators killed a medical marijuana bill. House Public Safety Committee Chair Clel Baudler (R-Greenfield) call it one of the "stupidest" bills he had ever seen. He was joined by the other Republican on the three-member panel in voting to kill it.

Massachusetts

On Sunday, state officials said they may not make the deadline to come up with medical marijuana regulations. They are required to have them in place by May 1, but health officials said the complexity of the issues was such that they were unlikely to be able to comply. Medical marijuana advocates responded that any delay is unjustified and would cause patients to suffer.

Michigan

On Tuesday, a report said the state had collected $10 million in revenues from medical marijuana program applicants. The report covered the period through the end of the state's budget year on September 30. It says the revenue intake was nearly double that needed to run the program.

Montana

Last Friday, Chris Williams was sentenced to a mandatory minimum five years in prison for his role in Montana Cannabis, the state's largest dispensary during its short-lived medical marijuana boom. He had been facing more than 90 years in federal prison after refusing plea agreements and then being convicted of marijuana cultivation and firearms offenses in federal court (they had a shotgun at their grow op), but in the face of a public outcry, prosecutors sought and got an unusual post-conviction plea bargain limiting his prison exposure.

South Dakota

On Tuesday, a medical marijuana bill was killed in the legislature. It went down on a 7-6 vote in the House Health and Human Services Committee. Medical marijuana bills have been repeatedly introduced since 2001, only to die. South Dakota voters have also twice rejected medical marijuana initiatives.

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