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Law Enforcement: Snitch Culture Gone Bad in Ohio -- 15 Prisoners to Go Free Because of Informant's Tainted Testimony

In a case that has been stinking up northeast Ohio for several years now, a federal judge in Cleveland Tuesday decided that 15 Mansfield men imprisoned on drug charges should be freed because their convictions were based on the testimony of a lying DEA informant. The men, convicted on crack cocaine dealing charges, have collectively served 30 years already.

The men were all convicted solely on the testimony of informant Jerrell Bray and his handler, DEA Special Agent Lee Lucas. But Bray has since admitted lying in the Mansfield drug cases and has since been sentenced to 15 years in prison on perjury and civil rights charges. He is now working with a US Justice Department task force investigating what went wrong in the cases.

"It's about time," said Danielle Young, the mother of Nolan Lovett, who was serving a five-year sentence but could be home by the end of the month. "This is long, long overdue. These boys will finally get justice, even if it is late," she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

US District Judge John Adams told attorneys Tuesday he hopes to have the men returned to Northeast Ohio from federal prisons across the county. Then, federal prosecutors can formally ask Adams to drop the charges because there is no evidence to convict the men. That could have happened as early as this week.

Bray and Lucas originally collaborated on a massive drug investigation that resulted in 26 indictments for drug conspiracy. Three people were sentenced to probation, judges or juries tossed eight cases, and 15 men were sent to prison. But that was before Bray's lies were exposed.

The Plain Dealer noted that 14 of the 15 had pleaded guilty, a fact the paper naively said made the situation "unique," but then pointed out that they may have pleaded after seeing what had happened to Geneva France, a young mother with no criminal record who was indicted, but refused to plea bargain and steadfastly maintained her innocence. Convicted on the testimony of Bray and Lucas, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

France served 16 months before being freed after Bray's perjury came to light. In a heart-rending article this week, the Plain Dealer recounted France's sorry tale. Her real offense? Refusing to date the informant.

While the victims of Bray and Lucas are about to be freed, the case isn't over yet, and now, the hunter has become the hunted. According to the Plain Dealer, Lucas is the focus of the Justice Department investigation. But it is the snitch system itself that should really be on trial.

Harm Reduction: San Antonio Police Arrest Needle Exchangers, DA Ups the Ante

Bill Day, 73, and the Bexar Area Harm Reduction Coalition have been doing unsanctioned needle exchanges in poor San Antonio neighborhoods for years, but this week, Day and two of the group's board members were arrested on drug paraphernalia possession charges as they handed out clean syringes. Now, the San Antonio Express-News reports, to add insult to injury, District Attorney Susan Reed has upped the charges from possession to distribution of paraphernalia, exposing Day and his comrades to a year in jail, as opposed to the maximum $500 fine for possession.

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popular syringe exchange logo
Day and the coalition are fighting back. They have assembled a legal team that includes high-profile criminal defense attorney Gerald Goldstein and pro bono assistance from the prestigious Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld law firm.

"These are enormously decent, charitable people, and what's happening with them smacks of persecution," said Neel Lane, an attorney with Akin Gump who has filed a brief with the state attorney general's office on the group's behalf.

Last year, the Texas legislature passed a bill authorizing health officials to set up a pilot needle exchange program in Bexar County, which would be the first legal needle exchange in the Lone Star State. But DA Reed has stalled the program, declaring that the legislation authorizing it is faulty. An opinion from the state attorney general is pending.

In fact, Reed has been trying to derail the program since it was approved last summer. Last August, she told the Express-News that state drug laws trump the needle exchange legislation, a minority position even among prosecutors. She warned local health officials the law would not protect them.

"I'm telling them, and I'm telling the police chief, I don't think they have any kind of criminal immunity," Reed said. "That's the bottom line. It has nothing to do with whether they do it or don't do it -- other than if you do it you might find yourself in jail."

Reed opposed the needle exchange program, but by forcing the issue, she may have inadvertently contributed to resolving the program's legality once and for all.

A special thanks to Texas criminal justice blogger Scott Henson and his Grits for Breakfast blog for a heads-up on this one.

Medical Marijuana: New Mexico Paraplegic Sues Over Seizure of Plants, Grow Equipment

One of New Mexico's first registered medical marijuana patients is suing Eddy County Sheriff's deputies for seizing his marijuana plants and grow equipment and turning them over to the DEA. Leonard French of Malaga received a license to grow and use marijuana for pain resulting from a spinal cord injury, but that didn't stop the Pecos Valley Drug Task Force, headed by Dave Edmundson of the Eddy County Sheriff's Department, from seizing his plants and equipment shortly after he began growing last summer.

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California medical marijuana bags (courtesy Daniel Argo via Wikimedia)
Now, with the help of the ACLU of New Mexico, French has filed a lawsuit in state court seeking a declaratory judgment that the task force's actions violated the state's medical marijuana law, the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, as well as its asset forfeiture statute; an injunction to stop the task force from again raiding French and his garden; and compensatory damages for his stolen property.

"The New Mexico state legislature, in its wisdom, passed the Compassionate Use Act after carefully considering the benefits the drug provides for people who suffer from uncontrollable pain, and weighing those benefits against the way federal law considers cannabis," said Peter Simonson, ACLU executive director, in a press release announcing the lawsuit. "With their actions against Mr. French, Eddy County officials thwarted that humane, sensible law, probably for no other reason than that they believed federal law empowered them to do so."

When at least four Eddy County deputies acting as members of the Pecos Valley Drug Task Force showed up at French's home last September 4, he thought they were checking his compliance with the medical marijuana law, so he presented them with his license, and showed them his grow, which consisted of two small plants and three dead sprouts. They then turned the plants and the grow equipment over to the DEA, which does not recognize medical marijuana or the state laws that permit its use. French has not been charged with any offense under either state or federal law.

"With the Compassionate Use Act, New Mexico embarked on an innovative project to help people who suffer from painful conditions like Mr. French's," said Simonson. "The law cannot succeed if the threat of arrest by county and local law enforcement hangs over participants in the program. With this lawsuit, we hope to clear the way for the State to implement a sensible, conservative program to apply a drug that traditionally has been considered illicit for constructive purposes."

And maybe teach some recalcitrant cops a lesson about obeying the law.

Law Enforcement: Virginia Narcotics Officer Killed Busting Down Door in Marijuana Grow Raid

Chesapeake, Virginia, Police Detective Jarrod Shivers was killed by a bullet fired through a door as he attempted to break it down during a raid on a suspected marijuana grow operation on January 17. Shivers was a veteran narcotic detective and SWAT team member whose specialty was "breaching" doors during drug raids. The home's resident, Ryan Frederick, was arrested in the shooting.

As Drug War Chronicle noted in a recent review of drug war-related law enforcement deaths last year, making drug arrests is not an extraordinarily risky endeavor -- only one officer died doing a drug raid last year, and the total number killed doing any drug enforcement was five. But there are risks, especially when police rely on dynamic forced entries, as appears to have been the case in Chesapeake.

While police said they did a "knock and announce" before entering the home, one local press account said Shivers "died doing his specialty -- breaking down doors" -- when he was shot.

Police had obtained a search warrant based on information from a confidential informant that "the marijuana was growing in portable shelters with a hydroponic system," according to local press reports. This week, police announced they had indeed seized marijuana and growing equipment, though without explaining why they waited five days to say so.

Shivers was buried on Tuesday. The alleged shooter, Frederick, remains in jail. He is now charged with first degree murder.

All this over some pot plants.

It's Really Easy to Put Innocent People in Jail for Drugs

In an effort to protect our society from drugs, we've created laws that endanger everyone:

A federal judge decided Tuesday to free 15 men from prison because their convictions were based on testimony of a government informant who lied on the witness stand and framed innocent people.

Collectively, the men have served at least 30 years behind bars…

The case is a blow to the federal justice system, which relies heavily on informant-based testimony, lawyers said. The men, some with no prior run-ins with the law, were given long prison sentences based almost exclusively on the word of informant Jerrell Bray and Lee Lucas, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who supervised Bray. [Cleveland Plain Dealer]

Stories like this emerge regularly, and yet one can only imagine how many such travesties of justice will never come to light. The process is so simple: informant makes up stories to get himself out of trouble, someone else get in trouble, informant doesn't. You couldn't design a more efficient system for collecting innocent people and tossing them behind bars.

The 15 innocent people that will now be set free are incredibly lucky (if you wanna call it that) that the people who set them up happened to be exposed as serial liars. That is really the only thing you can hope for when your conviction resulted from a conspiracy between shady snitches and dirty drug cops.

This is what you get when you pull back the curtain and behold the drug war for what it truly is and not what it is supposed to be. The Drug Czar with all his tricky talking points and misleading rhetoric can’t and won't ever attempt to defend injustice such as this. But it is that very same anti-drug propaganda that has served to blind our eyes and deafen our ears to the sickening unfairness that characterizes the practical application of these brutal laws.

When one comes to appreciate the totality of the lies, errors, and overkill that are inevitably included in the drug war package deal, it ceases to even matter what one thinks about drugs. This war would be a disaster even if it worked the ways it's supposed to. But it doesn't. And it never will.

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Our Drug Laws Literally Allow Police to Steal From Innocent People

I received this email through the Flex Your Rights website a few weeks back and found it quite disturbing, though perfectly typical and unsurprising by drug war standards:

I'm a retired police lieutenant from a large midwestern city. Prior to my retirement my department, like so many others, saw dollar signs when new laws in response to the "drug war" (gawd, what a mistake THAT has turned out to be) allowed law enforcement to seize property with either flimsy or non-existent probable cause.

Special police units were posted on the expressways leading into the city with instructions to stop as many cars as possible, search them and the occupants, and if anyone had more than a few dollars, SEIZE IT.

Our command staff gleefully reported to us that the burden of proof was on the citizen to prove that the money was NOT drug proceeds, and since the amount of money seized would often be less than the amount that the citizen would have to spend to sue us, that we could be assured of keeping the bulk of the money.

I was flabbergasted. To make things worse, part of my yearly performance rating as a police lieutenant was based on how much money and other real property, such as cars, that my troops seized. On my instructions, my troops never seized a dime.

Turning law enforcement officers into bounty hunters is one of the most tragic mistakes this country has ever made.

Keep up the good work.
Lieutenant Harry Thomas (ret.)
I can't verify any of this, but I really don't need to. Lt. Thomas describes the asset forfeiture epidemic that corrupted law enforcement agencies throughout the nation, necessitating the formation of Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR) in 1992 and the passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. And now that forfeiture laws have been "reformed," police have since felt free to continue confiscating property under the most ludicrous circumstances because the drug war says it's ok.

Lt. Thomas's story provides a particularly disturbing picture of police officers being commanded by their superiors to operate as an extortion ring. The recognition that citizens would have a difficult time proving their property "innocent" demonstrates an unconscionable willingness to seize property from law-abiding citizens. Put simply, the behavior described above is theft in both effect and intent.

Make what you will of this particular account, but if you think that one could implement forfeiture laws such as ours without provoking this exact behavior, then I dare you to put your life savings in a briefcase and drive around Indiana consenting to police searches.

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Prison Art Gallery: FREE Reception Featuring Judge Arthur Bennett

You are cordially invited to attend a free reception at the Prison Art Gallery (three blocks from the White House) featuring a talk by Judge Arthur Burnett. There will be a question and answer period following Judge Burnett's presentation. Refreshments will be served. If you ever wanted to know more about the inner workings of the judicial system that sends so many people to prison, this is a rare opportunity to find out. Senior Judge Arthur L. Burnett, Sr., now on leave from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, currently serves as the Executive Director of the National African American Drug Policy Coalition. In that capacity he seeks alternatives to incarceration, including the use of drug courts and treatment instead of prisons. His influential Coalition consists of twenty-three professional organizations of lawyers, doctors, dentists, nurses, social workers, sociologists, psychologists and other behavioral scientists. Judge Burnett graduated from Howard University summa cum laude and received his law degree from New York University in 1958. He commenced his law career that year in the Attorney General's Honors Program at the United States Department of Justice in the Criminal Division. In 1965 he became an Assistant United States Attorney in Washington, D.C. where he prosecuted homicides, among other cases. In 1968 he became the first General Counsel of the Metropolitan Police Department in the District of Columbia. After serving in other distinguished positions, he was appointed by the President of the United States to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in 1987. For further information, please call 202-393-1511 or email staff@PrisonsFoundation.org.
Date: 
Sun, 01/20/2008 - 2:00pm
Location: 
1600 K Street NW, Suite 501
Washington, DC
United States

Obama Pledges to Continue the Drug War

How shall I respond when a prominent politician rejects drug legalization, while in the same breath criticizing the costs and consequences of our wildly bloated criminal justice system? Should I condemn his tacit endorsement of the drug war or give him credit for at least recognizing a problem that so many still pretend doesn’t exist? I guess I'll try to do both.

Here's what Barack Obama said when a questioner pointed out how lucky he is to have avoided arrest for his past drug use and asked if he would consider ending the drug war:
"I'm not interested in legalizing drugs,'' Obama said, adding that he prefers an approach that puts more emphasis on a public health approach to drugs and less emphasis on incarceration.

He said there should be more programs to keep young people from using drugs. And he said first-time offenders should be given help to overcome their drug use instead of being locked up at massive taxpayer expense from which they emerge as unemployable ex-convicts.

"All we do is give them a master's degree in criminology,'' Obama said. [AP]
What a shame that Obama's most forward-thinking comments on criminal justice reform must be prefaced with a rejection of the one idea that has a chance of working. The inherent flaw in Obama's narrow, palatable rhetoric is revealed unintentionally by The Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last:
The only problem with this is that there are very, very few people incarcerated for first-time drug use.
Last goes on to laboriously downplay the persecution of first-time offenders in our criminal justice system. It's an outrageous attempt to argue that everyone in prison deserves to be there. But it does have the effect of reminding us how limited Obama's proposed reforms truly are.

The root of our drug war-fueled incarceration crisis lies in the practice of vigorously arresting and criminalizing people for having drugs. As long as this machinery remains in place, our prison population will continue to grow exponentially. Obama's first-time offender focused model of criminal justice reform is like trying to drain an olympic swimming pool with a pint glass.

Meanwhile, the drug war itself continues to function as a massive black market job recruitment program; a fully functional drug offender factory whose participants are often much more addicted to grocery money than drugs. Treatment-focused reform strategies don't address or even acknowledge this. Still, it remains perfectly commonplace for proponents of partial criminal justice reform to insist that we continue imprisoning suppliers while searching for ever more suppliers to imprison, all while failing entirely to disrupt supply.

The silver lining here is that important people are becoming increasingly comfortable admitting that something is wrong. When the reforms they've agreed upon fail to address the problem, they can't just go back and pretend to be cool with it. They've promised to fix our criminal justice system and if they continue to follow the trail of clues, they will eventually find themselves face to face with the war on drugs.

(This blog post was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)
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Marijuana: Sight of Someone Smoking a Joint Not Grounds for Home Search, California Appeals Court Rules

The California Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled last Friday that police cannot enter a home without a search warrant just because they see someone smoking marijuana inside. Police may enter a home to preserve evidence of a crime, the court held, but only if the crime is punishable by jail or prison. The ruling came in People v. Hua.

Under California law, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana has been decriminalized with a maximum $100 fine and no jail time. Because simple possession has been decriminalized, even if police see someone smoking a joint inside a house, they have not witnessed a jailable offense, hence the only way they may enter without a search warrant is if they seek and receive the permission of a resident.

The case came about in March 2005, when officers in Pacifica came to an apartment on a noise complaint, smelled marijuana as they approached, then looked through a window to see what appeared to be someone smoking pot in a group of people. Police then entered and searched the apartment over the objections of resident John Hua. They found two joints in the living room, 46 plants in a bedroom, and an illegal cane-sword on a bookshelf.

After a San Mateo County judge upheld the police search, Hua pleaded no contest to cultivating marijuana and possession of the sword and served a 60-day jail sentence. But he retained his right to appeal the search ruling.

On appeal, prosecutors offered a two-pronged argument: that they had reason to believe there was more than an ounce of marijuana in the apartment, and that Hua or others might be committing a felony by handing the joint back and forth. But the court wasn't buying; it said the first argument was "mere conjecture" and the second was a misinterpretation of the law, which prescribes the same fine for giving a joint to someone as it does for smoking it.

Prosecutors aren't happy. California Deputy Attorney General Ronald Niver said he would recommend appealing the ruling to the state Supreme Court. "It's difficult to accept the proposition that if you see marijuana in one room, you cannot draw the inference that there's marijuana in another room," he said. "It's like saying that if you see the streets are wet, you can't infer that it's raining."

Ironically, Niver's boss, California Attorney General Jerry Brown, was the governor who signed the decriminalization bill in 1978.

Alert: A SWAT Team Shot a Mother and Child Last Week -- Take Action Now to Stop the Madness!

CLICK HERE TO TAKE ACTION TO STOP THE DEADLY SWAT RAIDS

In November 2006, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston was killed by police during a raid conducted at the wrong house. Ms. Johnston fired at the police officers as they were breaking in through her living room window. Three officers were injured, but Ms. Johnston was struck 39 times and died at the scene. In July 2007, Mike Lefort, 61, and his mother, Thelma, 83, were surprised and thrown to the ground when Thibodeau, Louisiana police burst into the wrong house with a "no knock" warrant. Thelma suffered from a spike in her blood pressure and had a difficult time overcoming the shock. In March 2007, masked police officers in Jacksonville, Florida, mistakenly burst into the home of Willie Davis, grandfather of murdered DreShawna Davis, and his mentally disabed son. The pair were forced to the ground, where they watched helplessly as police tore apart the memorabilia from DreShawn's funeral. The drug sale that never happened was said to involve all of two crack rocks worth $60.
One would think after Atlanta police killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, that they would get the idea, but they haven't. Last Friday, 1/4/08, a SWAT team, serving an ordinary drug search warrant, invaded the Ohio home of Tarika Wilson -- an innocent woman -- shot and killed her, and shot her one-year-old son. "They went in that home shooting," her mother said at a vigil that night. The boy lost at least one of his fingers. Two dogs were shot too. SWAT teams were created to deal with extreme situations, not routine ones. Yet police now conduct tens of thousands of SWAT raids every year, mostly in low-level drug enforcement. The result is that people like Wilson and Johnston continue to die in terror, with many thousands more having to go on living with trauma. But it's all for a drug war that has failed and can't be made to work. It's time to rein in the SWAT teams. Please sign our online petition: ">Enough is Enough: Petition to Limit Paramilitary Police Raids in America." A copy will be sent in your name to your US Representative and Senators, your state legislators, your governor, and the president. When you're done, please tell your friends and please spread the word wherever you can. This is a first step. Take it with us today, and there can be more. Enough is enough -- no more needless deaths from reckless SWAT raids! Visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/policeraids for more information about this issue, including our October Zogby poll showing that 66% of Americans, when informed about the issue, don't think police should use aggressive entry tactics when doing routine drug enforcement.

CLICK HERE TO TAKE ACTION TO STOP THE DEADLY SWAT RAIDS

StoptheDrugWar.org (still known to many of our readers as DRCNet, the Drug Reform Coordination Network), is an international organization working for an end to drug prohibition worldwide and for reform of drug policy and the criminal justice system in the US. Visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle for the latest issue of our acclaimed weekly newsletter, Drug War Chronicle.
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