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Corruption and Misconduct: Bastard Children of the War on Drugs

Submitted by smorgan on
One of the most widely ignored consequences of the drug war is its negative influence on the men and women who carry it out. Two disturbing stories from local papers illustrate the drug war's profound ability to criminalize our public servants.

First, a revealing story of police misconduct from The Journal Inquirer in North Central Connecticut:

A Hartford police detective arrested days after his retirement in 2004 on charges of falsifying an arrest warrant has been granted a special form of probation that could lead to his arrest record being expunged.

The decision came after a hearing in which [Sgt. Franco] Sanzo's lawyer, Jake Donovan of Middletown, called another retired officer who said that police frequently sign their names to warrants - and swear before judges - that they've seen things they haven't.

So basically Sanzo's defense was that this type of misconduct is a matter of routine at his department. And it worked! I don't know if I'm more shocked that a defense attorney would offer an argument so contemptuous towards the Fourth Amendment, or that a judge would actually be persuaded by an attempt to rationalize police misconduct.

The warrant at the center of Sanzo's arrest claimed that he and Officer Nathaniel Ortiz had witnessed people buying drugs from a convicted felon in Hartford's north end on Aug. 27 and 28, 2004.

However, police and prosecutor Dennis J. O'Connor say the warrant was based on false information, and that the convicted felon was actually in jail at the time Sanzo and Ortiz claimed to have seen him.

The warrant was used in a search of the felon's mother's apartment. Ortiz and another officer, William Ward, say they bought crack cocaine from the woman. She later complained to the Police Department that items were stolen and property destroyed during the search.

Gosh, I don't know whom to believe.

Next, the Santa Fe New Mexican tells the story of a highly regarded officer's descent into corruption:

What emerges is a portrait of a man who worked extra hours to keep drugs and criminals off the streets, a man who consistently testified honestly in court and would sometimes buy turkeys for needy families during the holidays. However, Altonji also increasingly gravitated toward what many involved in the criminal justice system say can be the most morally bankrupting assignment in all of police work: narcotics.

Today, he has been stripped of his badge and gun, and stands as the sole target of a federal grand jury meeting this morning in downtown Albuquerque to investigate allegations of money laundering, deprivation of civil rights and theft concerning a program receiving federal funds.

This story is all too familiar. To its credit, The New Mexican puts these events in context:

To nearly everyone involved in the criminal justice system, narcotics is a dirty business. To be effective, officers must learn to look, act and think like drug dealers, according to lawyers, current and former police officers, and others who work in the justice system. Consequently, officers continually work around large amounts of cash and drugs, and opportunities to take one or the other or both are frequent, they said.

"You've got to stoop down to their level," said a retired area narcotics detective. "You've gotta get slimy."

And that's the problem. Too many police officers have been allowed to become slimeballs in uniform. Too often, constitutional violations by police have been deemed necessary. Too often, criminal activity by police has been deemed anomalous. And too often, the perpetrators of these crimes are forgiven with remarkable haste, as the concept of judicial discretion that is essential to the administration of justice in a free society is brought to bear only in defense of public servants who abuse their power.

How petty a crime is drug possession compared to that of deliberately violating the Constitution?

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