US IL: Civil Liberties Cast Aside in Overzealous Drug War

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Truth-Seeker, Feb 6, 2001.

  1. Media Awareness Project

    US IL: Civil Liberties Cast Aside in Overzealous Drug War
    Pubdate: Sun, 04 Feb 2001
    Source: Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
    Copyright: 2001 The Sun-Times Co.
    Address: 401 N. Wabash, Chicago IL 60611
    Author: Dan Gardner,

    Patrick Dorismond probably never knew that the men who killed him were police officers.

    Standing on a New York City street corner one night last March, Dorismond and his friend Kevin Kaiser were approached by three men who, Kaiser later recalled, looked like "derelicts."

    They asked Dorismond if he had any marijuana. The men were undercover police officers. They didn't know Dorismond or his friend. They had not seen him do anything suspicious. They were simply approaching people based on a vague profile of pot dealers. Dorismond, who was black, fit the profile.

    Dorismond, an off-duty security guard, said no, he didn't have any marijuana. He told the scruffy would-be drug buyers to get lost. One of the men responded with what Kaiser described as "animal noises." The cop later said he was trying to make a joke.

    What happened next isn't clear. The police say Dorismond threw a punch. Kaiser says the police threw the first punch.

    However it started, there was a brawl that brought more officers rushing in. A police gun was fired, and Dorismond died.

    The issue of who threw the first punch is important for deciding whether police broke the law, but it doesn't change the cold reality of what happened that night: A man minding his own business was approached by police officers hoping he would commit a crime if they mentioned marijuana.

    It's called a "buy-and-bust," a common police tactic that edges up to the line of entrapment but, provided certain minimal requirements are met, doesn't cross it. And the use of that tactic started the chain of events that led to an innocent man's death.

    When governments decided to criminalize certain drugs, they created a cancer of police power that has spread ever since, eating away at civil liberties.

    That cancer has led police officers, sworn to protect innocent people, to endanger them with sting operations. It is a tactic now in widespread use around the world.

    Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, insists that the war on drugs must also, by force of logic, mean war on civil liberties. To understand why, he asks a fundamental question: What kind of police power is appropriate in a free society?

    To answer, he points to John Stuart Mill's classic "harm principle": People should be free to do what they choose so long as they don't harm others. By that standard, the ingestion of marijuana and other drugs by adults in private is a question of personal choice, no different than the consumption of cholesterol "or indeed the kinds of thoughts you allow to enter your head and what comes out of your mouth."

    The right to make these sorts of choices, Glasser says, is "the most fundamental civil liberty you can have as an individual." By forbidding people to choose to ingest certain drugs in private, governments violate the harm principle.

    Once that's done, the disease begins to spread, because to enforce laws that intrude into private choices, "you necessarily have to intrude on people's personal space and privacy."

    It's no accident, Glasser notes, that wiretapping in America was an invention of alcohol prohibition. Investigating drug offenses is often very difficult, for an elementary reason: Unlike most crimes, there's no victim in drug crimes. The seller of the drugs wants to sell them; the buyer wants to buy. Neither is going to complain to the authorities that the law has been broken.

    That means the police have to be proactive, says Alan Young, a professor of criminal law at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, "as opposed to the traditional role of being reactive, of receiving complaints and then investigating."

    The undercover police officers who asked Patrick Dorismond for marijuana were being proactive. The buy-and-bust technique they used is not necessary in investigating non-consensual crime; it was invented to enforce drug prohibition.

    The difficulty of enforcing drug laws forces police to search constantly for new ways to investigate people's private actions.

    Alcohol prohibition lasted only 13 years in the United States, but in that short time, the power of police to intrude into the private lives of Americans exploded. Officers learned to bug rooms and tap phone calls. They set up speakeasies to catch booze suppliers. Informants were offered bribes to catch corrupt police officers.

    These tactics were virtually unknown before Prohibition. They also were seen by many as offensive to personal liberty.

    But this wasn't enough to stop the hunt for new police tactics. The police were, after all, just doing what had to be done, given the difficult task they had been handed. As a federal commission noted in 1931, alcohol prohibition was "the first instance in our history in which the effort has been made by constitutional provision to extend the police control of the federal government to every individual and every home in the United States."

    Many judges opposed the expansion of police tactics, but, influenced by the crisis atmosphere and the noble goals of the anti-alcohol crusade, the courts often failed to stop it. Wiretapping seemed to clearly violate the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, but the Supreme Court approved it by a 5-4 vote in 1928.

    Judges crafted many other "exceptions" to constitutional protections. Prohibition was abolished in 1933, but the new police tactics and powers stayed; everyone had grown used to them. Today, the public and the police alike see tactics such as wiretapping as indispensable tools in maintaining public order.

    In fact, they are rarely used to investigate anything except drug violations and consensual crimes such as gambling.

    But how far the intrusions will spread depends on the size of the criminal market involved, and how zealously authorities try to wipe it out. Prohibition in the 1920s produced a huge illegal market and a national crusade to end it, so the intrusions into civil liberty were serious. Illegal drugs today are an even bigger, worldwide market.

    The drive to wipe out that trade is intense and international, so the damage drug prohibition does to civil liberties is also great in most nations. But the war on drugs is most intense in the United States, and that is where authorities have been most active in attacking civil liberties. Buy-and-bust operations such as the one that went haywire and killed Patrick Dorismond are part of the daily routine across the United States.

    Money-laundering legislation, inspired almost exclusively by the war on drugs, forces banks to gather and supply a huge array of information about their clients to government agents.

    The use of paid informants also has become common, thanks to drug cases. Paid testimony is notoriously unreliable--a fact illustrated again last year when it was revealed that a man who had been paid $2.2 million by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to take part in "reverse stings" had lied repeatedly on the witness stand.

    The informant had taken part in about 300 drug cases involving 445 defendants, some of whom got life sentences.

    Heavily militarized police units increasingly are used for drug enforcement.

    The U.S. Constitution, like most modern constitutions, forbids "cruel and unusual punishment," which, according to established American law, includes sentences that are "grossly disproportionate" to the seriousness of the crime being punished.

    Yet some of the sentences U.S. politicians have made mandatory for drug offenses are, by any reasonable definition, out of all proportion to the crimes involved: One man in Michigan, a first-time offender convicted of merely possessing cocaine, was given life in prison with no chance of parole.

    When his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990, two conservative justices said the Constitution didn't prohibit disproportionate sentences; three other justices said that while there is a bar on grossly disproportionate punishments, the drug crisis was so serious that this sentence was not disproportionate. It was upheld.

    The shrinking of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, begun during alcohol prohibition, has been drastically advanced by drug prohibition. The most dramatic change has been in obtaining search warrants.

    Originally, police had to show judges reliable, verifiable evidence that criminal activity was taking place inside a home to get a warrant. Now, a warrant often can be had based on nothing more than an anonymous tip. That change came as a result of rulings in drug cases.

    Of the drug war's many assaults on American civil liberties, perhaps the most extreme is what is called civil asset forfeiture.

    Ordinarily, property is seized only after its owner is charged with and convicted of a crime and the property can be shown to be the fruits of that crime. Civil asset forfeiture, however, does away with the need to prove guilt. To seize any sort of property, police simply have to show that the property was somehow connected to illegal drugs.

    To do that, the police must meet only a civil law standard of proof--a far lower standard than that required to convict someone of a crime.

    It doesn't matter if the owner of the property never is convicted of a crime or never even charged with a crime. In 80 percent of forfeitures, in fact, charges never are filed.

    Civil asset forfeiture is based on the medieval legal notion that the property itself is "guilty." ( In medieval law, animals, too, could be guilty. Cows, goats and other barnyard animals occasionally were put on trial and executed. ) Thus, it's even irrelevant that the owner didn't know the property was used for criminal activities or tried to stop them.

    A Kansas couple who owned and operated a motel had their business taken by the government in 1999 because drug sales had taken place on the property--even though the couple had nothing to do with the drug sales and had installed floodlights and fences in an effort to keep drug traffickers away from their property.

    The only way to fight civil forfeiture is to go to court after the property is taken.

    Since 1985, the American government has taken property worth more than $7 billion this way. Until the drug war, civil asset forfeiture was almost a dead letter. But in 1970, and again in 1984, the concept was revived as a way of hitting drug traffickers without the difficulty of proving them guilty of crimes.

    Police forces even were allowed to keep the proceeds of forfeiture, leading to wild enthusiasm for its use. The return of this medieval concept to modern American law, says Glasser, is entirely due to drug prohibition.

    Congress is set to pass the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act, which would allow police to conduct "secret searches and seizures"--meaning they could search a home, make copies of material such as computer files, and leave, without telling the occupant they were there.

    The bill also would make it a crime to tell someone how to make drugs or indicate where they could buy drug paraphernalia. Even creating a link on a Web site that directs people to such information would be criminal.

    Police in the United States also have invented another form of invasive search: Traffic is stopped at random checkpoints where drug dogs sniff each car. If a dog reacts, that is taken as reasonable grounds to search the vehicle.

    The U.S. Supreme Court soon will hear a constitutional challenge of this. If the action is upheld, Glasser says, it effectively will be the end of the Fourth Amendment.

    The U.S. Customs Service checks airline passengers against "profiles" of drug couriers using information such as gender, citizenship, frequency of flying, place of origin and so on.

    Customs initially planned to demand even more information, such as a traveler's income, ticket class and dietary needs, but it backed down when privacy advocates objected.

    The federal government also is planning to further expand the number of illegal acts police will be allowed to commit in the course of their duties.

    The main target is the drug trade and the money laundering linked to it, along with gambling and prostitution. For those concerned with civil liberties, the cancer spawned by drug prohibition looks relentless and frightening. Glasser says it's even worse than it looks because "it can't be fixed."

    The source of the disease, he insists, is the decision of governments to intervene in the personal choices of citizens by forbidding the use of some drugs.

    "It is impossible to enforce drug prohibition without eroding civil liberties," Glasser says. "It is impossible to ban drugs without wiretapping and strip searches and buy-and-bust operations. It is impossible to do it without endangering innocent people, or even, as in the sad case of Patrick Dorismond, killing some of them.

    "You don't do away with policing because some cops beat people up. You deal with the police brutality," Glasser says. But there is no treatment for this cancer except, he says, "to get rid of prohibition.

    "That was true during alcohol prohibition, and it's true now."

    MAP posted-by: GD

  2. Excellent post T.S. !
  3. Land of the free my ass...
  4. wow man, this thread is 7 1/2 years old. How'd you even find it??? ;)
  5. damn. It is old, but still, pretty damned scary how little has changed. I guess in SOME ways things have gotten better because of medical mj, but otherwise, not so much. Scary scary times.
  6. What's scariest is how so many cops get away with some much accountability is there for a cop that oversteps his/her bounds. Seems to me the saying "the only difference between a cop and a thug is the badge" holds true more often than not.

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