Incarceration, Asset Forfeiture, Arrests, Informants, Police Raids, Search and Seizure

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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.

United States

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.

United States

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
Sun, 01/20/2008 - 2:00pm
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'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.)
United States

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!


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 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 (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 for the latest issue of our acclaimed weekly newsletter, Drug War Chronicle.
United States

Law Enforcement: Ohio SWAT Team Kills Woman, Wounds Toddler in Drug Raid

Stop the Deadly SWAT Raids! Click Here to Sign the Petition

In the latest example of overzealous policing gone fatally awry, a member of a Lima, Ohio, police SWAT team shot and killed a young mother and wounded the child she was holding in her arms during a raid aimed at the woman's boyfriend, who was alleged to be selling drugs from the residence. Tarika Wilson, 26, was killed last Friday in an upstairs bedroom, shot twice by Lima police Sgt. Joseph Chevalia. Her one-year-old son, Sincere, was also shot, as were two pit bulls at the house. The child lost his left index finger, but his injuries are not life-threatening. One of the pit bulls was killed.

In the week since the incident, Lima police have failed to provide any details on what led up to the shooting, except to say they were executing a drug search warrant for Wilson's boyfriend, Anthony Terry. Terry was arrested at the scene and charged with possession of crack cocaine, which, along with marijuana, was found at the house.

Lima police did, however, engage in some preemptive apologetics. "This is a terrible situation that resulted from a very dangerous situation that occurs when a high-risk search warrant is executed," Lima Police Chief George Garlock said.

Garlock did not explain what made the search warrant "high-risk," nor did he explain why he sent a SWAT team to raid a home where officers knew children were present. In addition to her one-year-old, Wilson was the mother of five other children between 3 and 8 who lived at the house.

Officers tossed at least one stun grenade before charging the residence, but that explosion took place outside because officers knew children were present. "Because of the possibility that we had children in there, they were not lobbed inside," Garlock said.

Lima police have turned the investigation of the incident over to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation because the shooting involved a Lima police officer. That investigation is expected to take several weeks.

By mid-week, the FBI announced that it was joining the investigation. But angry family and community members are not waiting for answers. A crowd of more than 300 people marched with family members from a community center to the home where the killing took place to express their outrage and from there to the police station.

"Remember that baby who is in a hospital and that woman laying on a slab being dissected because the Lima police overstepped their bounds," Brenda Johnson, executive director of the community center, told the crowd before the march began. Ms. Johnson said it was reckless for police to raid a home with so many children inside. "This time it was someone else's child," she said. "Next time it could be your child, your grandchild."

According to next door neighbor and Wilson cousin Junior Cook, police "broke down the door and started shooting." He also denied that Terry sold drugs from the house. "No one ever came and knocked on that door or bought drugs there," Cook said.

"Not all the police are bad. Some of them have children," Pastor Arnold Manley of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church told the crowd. "But the majority of the ones in Lima are."

Residents and community activists have vowed to march every Saturday until justice is done. On Monday, more than 200 of them showed up at a heated meeting with police officials and the city council to demand action.

"The man who shot her, he's not a suspect? What if that was me?" shouted Quintel Wilson, the victim's brother. "Where would I be? Locked up. No bond! Victim is the word here."

"We're going to see that justice is done," said Bishop Richard Cox, an official with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Councilman Tommy Pitts, chair of the council's safety services committee, said Lima police have long targeted blacks. "This comes as no surprise to me," he said about the shooting.

That the resort to heavily-armed, paramilitarized SWAT teams to do routine drug search warrants can result in civilian fatalities should come as no surprise to anyone who follows their use. In 2006, Cato Institute analyst Radley Balko produced an authoritative report on the topic, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, that showed dozens of cases of people killed or brutalized during such raids.

The raids continue despite little sign of public support for them. (publisher of this newsletter) last October commissioned a Zogby poll that found that two-thirds oppose the use of SWAT-style teams in routine drug raids. Now, from Ohio, comes one more reason to oppose them.

Stop the Deadly SWAT Raids! Click Here to Sign the Petition

Police Who Steal From Drug Suspects Are Charged With Theft of "Government" Property

The drug war has a rather tragic tendency to turn police into perps. Our ability to run a weekly feature with the latest news on domestic drug war corruption is just one example of the ubiquity with which law-enforcement becomes complicit in the very activity they are responsible for preventing.

Inevitably, when one hears about a police officer being sentenced to jail time, you simply know that their crimes were drug war-related:
On one occasion, prosecutors said Silva acquiesced while Kasperzyk improperly relocated confiscated narcotics during a drug raid to solidify a case against a suspect. Another time, prosecutors said Kasperzyk stole $1,000 confiscated during a drug raid and later gave $500 to Silva. Silva kept the money and did not report the theft, prosecutors said.

Kasperzyk has pleaded guilty to theft of government property and a civil rights conspiracy. He is scheduled to be sentenced in March. [Hartford Courant]
So if police steal during a drug raid, they're charged with robbing the government, not the suspect. It is often literally impossible for a drug suspect to be robbed by police, because their property ceases to belong to them once police start grabbing at it. Whether it ends up in an evidence bag or an officer's pocket, it's all the same to the innocent-until-proven-guilty drug suspect.

Isn't it interesting that the government maintained its ownership of the property here even though the arresting officers turned out to be liars and thieves? Even when police are found guilty of planting and stealing evidence, the government still keeps the fruits of their felonious labor. Anyone presiding over a policy such as this has no business enforcing laws against theft in the first place.

How can government possibly expect moral accountability from agents who are trained to steal on its behalf?
United States

Marijuana: Despite Law Allowing Ticketing for Pot Possession, Most Texas Counties Still Arrest

Thanks to a new state law that went into effect on September 1, law enforcement agencies in Texas now have the option of simply ticketing misdemeanor marijuana possession offenders instead of arresting them. The law, which also applies to a handful of other misdemeanor offenses, was designed to alleviate chronic overcrowding in Texas jails and make better use of police resources. However, almost no one in Texas is taking advantage of it.

According to a report this week in the Dallas Morning News, only the Travis County (Austin) Sheriff's Department is ticketing instead of arresting misdemeanor marijuana offenders. Officials in Dallas, Tarrant (Fort Worth), and Collin (suburban Dallas) counties gave varying reasons for failing to implement the cost-saving measure, ranging from "system inadequacies" to the belief it will "send the wrong message" about marijuana use.

"It may... lead some people to believe that drug use is no more serious than double parking," Collin County prosecutor Greg Davis told the Morning News.

"I think the legislature was very sensitive to the fact that there are so many jails that are overcrowded," said Terri Moore, Dallas County's first assistant district attorney. "This was a great idea, but it raises a lot more questions that we are not ready to answer."

"These are not just tickets. These are crimes that need to be appropriately dealt with," said Ron Stretcher, Dallas County's director of criminal justice. "We want to make sure we get them back to court to stand trial. It's not about emptying the jail. It's about making sure that we have room in the jail for the people who need to be there," he said.

But the Travis County Sheriff's Department said merely ticketing marijuana offenders was smart policy. "There are folks that think we are being soft on crime because we are just giving tickets. We are still hard on crime," said spokesman Roger Wade. "We believe if we can save resources and have the same effect on crime, then we should take advantage of this."

Prosecutors in north Texas counties also cited the lack of a system for dealing with misdemeanor tickets. But that seems pretty feeble.

Law Enforcement: Snitches Gone Bad

Just last week, Drug War Chronicle reviewed Ethan Brown's "Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice," which tells the story of the corruption and misdeeds fostered by federal drugs laws that virtually impel people who've been arrested to find others to inform on in order to avoid prison time themselves. We don't know if it's synchronicity or what, but in the week since then, bad snitch stories seem to be popping up all over. Here are three we've spotted in the past few days:

In Twin Falls, Idaho, a man charged in a Twin Falls murder was working as an informant for the Blaine County Narcotics Enforcement Team. John Henry McElhiney of Hailey is charged with killing an 18-year-old Twin Falls man in September. In response to press inquiries, the Blaine County Sheriff's Office has confirmed that McElhiney worked drug cases for the drug squad. The office stopped short of calling him a "confidential informant," however, instead referring to him as a "cooperative individual." It is unclear from local press accounts whether McElhiney became a snitch for money, to avoid prison time himself, or for some other reason. It is also unclear whether his assistance actually led to any other arrests. He awaits trial on the murder charge.

In Seattle, a "cooperating witness" pleaded guilty last Friday to framing people for drug sales offenses. Snitch Tina Rivard, 40, had been arrested in May for forging prescriptions, but instead of charging her, agents with the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Narcotics Task Force offered her a deal: leniency in exchange for helping to build cases against prescription drug dealers. Rivard helped in one case, but in a second, she framed a 21-year-old man on Oxycontin dealing charges by undermining the task force's "controlled buy" system. Although agents would punch the suspect's phone number into Rivard's phone, she would then secretly hit speed-dial and instead call a friend posing as the suspect. He would then make incriminating statements and set up drug deals. Rivard also faked a drug buy from the suspect under the agents' noses, having her friend actually bring the drugs she claimed to have bought. The 21-year-old was indicted and faced up to 20 years in prison, but Rivard eventually admitted she had set him up. Now the indictment against him has been dropped, and she faces 20 years.

In Cleveland, Ohio, an informant for the DEA has been convicted of framing innocent people and getting them sent to prison. Informant Jerrell Bray staged drug deals with friends while investigators watched, but gave investigators the names of people not involved in the deals, then testified or gave sworn statements saying that the innocent people were the drug dealers. Bray managed to set up four people, including a woman who had refused to date him, while working under DEA agent Lee Lucas. It is unclear whether Lucas or other law enforcement personnel knew what Bray was up to, but a federal grand jury will meet next month to investigate obstruction of justice, perjury, and weapons charges against Bray "and others." Bray was sentenced to 15 years in prison on perjury and deprivation of civil rights charges, a sentence that will run concurrently with state time for shooting a man in a drug-related robbery.

Ironically, Bray can gain a sentence cut on the federal time if he "cooperates fully." When will they learn?

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