4 shady ways police make drug busts

Quota systems and the monetary value of asset seizures incentivize officers to make arrests by any means necessary

Published July 8, 2013 10:55PM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


On Wednesday, the city of Berkeley filed a claim against the federal government’s move to file asset forfeiture against the landlord of Berkeley’s largest medical marijuana dispensary. The tactic, which threatens landlords with the state’s ability to seize their property, has been used many times in the federal government’s war on state-sanctioned medical marijuana.

“It is time for the federal government to wake up and stop these asset forfeiture actions," Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates wrote in a press release. "Berkeley Patients Group has complied with the rules and caused no problems in the City. The federal government should not use its scarce resources to harass local law-abiding businesses."

Needless to say, the tactic has drawn criticism from activists and locals alike. Last month, the US Conference of Mayors unanimously passed a resolution asking the federal government to butt out of local marijuana policy.

Drug policy reformers, including retired police officers with the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), point to asset forfeiture as one of the more oppressive tactics in the drug war. Because it allows the state to claim ownership of property, and police departments receive federal grants for prioritizing drug arrests, it puts a big price tag on a drug bust.

The monetary value of a drug bust and the use of quotas create a by-any-means-necessary incentive for drug arrests.

"Civil asset forfeiture laws allow police to take property from anyone by merely alleging that the property was used in the commission of a drug violation. No one has to be charged with a crime—they often charge the property directly because property doesn't have constitutional protections. Then they will sell the property, and keep the proceeds within the department. This creates an incentive to government to perpetuate the drug war, despite undeniable evidence of its many failures,” retired police captain and LEAP speaker Peter Christ told AlterNet.

Here are four recent examples of the ridiculous lengths to which some cops will go to procure drug arrests.

1. Fake Checkpoints

The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that establishing traffic checkpoints to search for illegal drugs violates the 4th Amendment. Nonetheless, police in the Cleveland, Ohio suburb of Mayfield Heights erected big yellow signs on the Interstate, warning drivers that a drug checkpoint ahead would include drug-sniffing dogs.

As the AP reported, “There was no such checkpoint, just police officers waiting to see if any drivers would react suspiciously after seeing the signs.” They reportedly stopped four people, made some arrests and seized some drugs, but “declined to be more specific,” the AP said. It is unclear whether establishing a fake checkpoint violates the case law, which holds that traffic check points may exist only to look for drunk drivers and prevent undocumented immigrants and illegal contraband from entering the country. Dominic Vitantonio, a Mayfield Heights assistant prosecutor, said of the tricky maneuver, "We should be applauded for doing this," adding, "It's a good thing."

Others aren’t so sure. The Cleveland ACLU is reportedly investigating the situation. “I  don't think it accomplishes any public safety goals," said Terry Gilbert, a prominent Cleveland civil rights attorney. "I don't think it's good to mislead the population for any reason if you're a government agency."

2. Teaching Cops Legal Loopholes

Meanwhile, in California, the CA Narcotics Officers’ Association (CNOA) recently hosted a class (closed to the public) teaching officers how to undermine California’s voter-approved, decade-old medical marijuana program. That’s because, despite research to the contrary and the will of the voters, “There is no justification for using marijuana as a medicine,” CNOA claims.

“This course is designed to assist law enforcement and prosecutors in understanding the intricacies of the ever-evolving legal arena of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries and Cultivation sites,” a CNOA advertisement said, offering loophole advice.

“This course will focus on California’s medical marijuana laws and how they apply to illegal storefront sales (Dispensaries) of medical marijuana and Cultivation sites claiming exemption under California Law. Investigative techniques and methods of shutting down Dispensaries and Cultivation Sites that were developed and tested will be discussed. This is truly a necessary class for anyone who must deal with the issues of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries.” Never mind what patients must deal with without their medicine.

3. Body Cavity Searches

Cops looking for drugs are sometimes so desperate for a bust they will search not just people's pockets or cars, but inside their bodies.

Angel Dobbs, 38, and her 24-year-old niece Ashley Dobbs know this firsthand. They claim Texas trooper Kelly Helleson, who has been indicted on sexual assault charges, used her fingers to search their anuses and vaginas (with the same latex glove) while on the side of the road, completely visible to passing traffic.

They say state trooper David Farrell pulled them over after seeing them throw cigarette butts out of the window, then questioned them about marijuana he claimed to smell, and called the female cop who ended up with her hands down their pants.

As retired lieutenant commander of the Redondo Beach Police Department, Diane Goldstein, told AlterNet, "The Texas Department of Public Safety has been caught on video not once but twice using roadside body cavity searches on young women under the pretext of searching for drugs. Though officers have been disciplined, there has been little discussion of the drug war's role in justifying significant violations in civil liberties. Bad policy produces bad outcomes."

Apparently, intrusive body searches are not that uncommon. Dozens of young black and Latinos who have been stopped and frisked by the NYPD have told AlterNet that cops regularly put their hands down their pants and feel around their genitals and backside.

Milwaukee cops appear to go even further. Alex Cossi, the defense attorney for Milwaukee police officers who conducted unauthorized body cavity checks, said his cop client Michael Vagnini was just conducting normal police work. Vagnini, he said, "had a reputation" for forcing suspects he thought had drugs to bend over, naked, but so what? "This was not a rogue happenstance. This was a tacit acceptance of strip searches without proper procedures or supervision," Cossi told the Milkwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The police report said Vagnini found cocaine"between (their) butt cheeks.” Vaginni was sentenced to 26 months in prison this June.

4. 21 Jump St For Real

In December, the Riverside County Police Department sent undercover cops into high schools where they befriended students (many of them struggling socially) and then asked them to buy weed. One special-needs student, for whom parents Catherine and Douglas Snodgrass have requested anonymity, was targeted by a police officer who “hounded” him for marijuana until he finally agreed to buy it for his new friend.

The Snodgrasses say their son has Aspberger’s and that the school was aware of the boy’s condition, but nonetheless allowed the police officer to prey upon him. Their son struggled to make friends, they said, and they were thrilled when they thought he had made one. The "friend" ended up making the boy's senior year a nightmare, including the humiliating experience of being handcuffed and arrested in school in front of his peers.

By Kristen Gwynne

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