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Drop the Sudafed, Samir!
2006.08.06 (Sun) 17:24
You know, we read about this Georgia meth sting months ago, and quite honestly, we figured it was one of those cases in which the idiotic and overzealous actions of the police (and the DEA) would be tossed aside, and those arrested would be cut loose. Surely the federal prosecutors would decline to prosecute, given the circumstances. Sadly, we were very much mistaken.
Let's start with some background here. First, we will have to set aside the fact that making, selling, and using drugs should not be a crime. While we firmly believe that adults should be free to use any drugs of their choice, the fact remains that in our current society of "illegal drugs," this investigation still poses serious problems.
As part of this sting operation, 49 people were arrested and charged, 44 of whom were of South Asian — generally Indian — descent (though we'd argue that this fact is somewhat peripheral, for reasons which we'll outline below). The sting, codenamed "Operation Meth Merchant" — which sounds like it would target people selling the illegal drug meth — actually targeted people selling perfectly legal items. To wit:
Undertaken by local and state police in partnership with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Operation Meth Merchant was purportedly aimed at convenience store owners and clerks selling legal household products, such as cold medicine, cooking fuel and matchbooks, which police claimed they knew would be used to make the illegal drug methamphetamine.
Okay, problem number one: why the fuck would it be illegal to sell cold medicine, cooking fuel, or matchbooks (or antifreeze, as another article points out) to competent adults under any circumstances? That's fucking insane. These are all perfectly legal items, and even if the clerks knew definitively that their customers were buying these items with the intent to go home and make a batch of meth, it still shouldn't have been illegal to sell these legal items to them. Why the holy hell is it the clerk's job to foresee or investigate the intended uses of these items and judge whether or not he should sell them? Does the same law apply to spoons, which can be used to cook heroin before injecting it? How about razor blades or mirrors, which we see used in movies all the time for cocaine-related purposes? For that matter, should clerks be allowed to return bills as change for their customers, when said bills could be rolled up and used to snort some coke? The whole idea is asinine from the start, and it's just one more example of how the "War on Drugs" has gone completely over the edge.
But it gets worse. Much worse. Let's take a look at how these stings went down, and determine if the clerks in question did or did not know what these products were going to be used for:
The charges arising from the investigation relied on the assumption that the South Asian store owners and clerks, most with limited English proficiency, understood slang terms used by police-directed informants during transactions, such as "cook," to mean that the products sold would be used to make methamphetamine.
"They only sent me to Indian stores...they wanted me to say things like 'I need it to go cook' or 'Hurry up, I've got to get home and finish a cook'," said an undercover informant in a sworn statement attached to the ACLU's legal papers. "The officers told me that the Indians' English wasn't good, and they wouldn't say a lot so it was important for me to make these kinds of statements." The informant, listed as John Doe #2, must remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by law enforcement.
Okay, problem number two. Were these practices discriminatory? Yes, it's pretty clear that they were. It seems that the investigation targeted people whose spoken English skills were weak and who therefore had less of a chance of understanding the veiled references to the use of the items that were being purchased. But more to the point, our spoken English skills are, at the very least, slightly above average; and we would have had no fucking clue that this guy was talking about making meth.
Look, if we were working at a local 7-11, and some guy dumped an armload of propane cylinders, matchbooks, and Sudafed on the counter, our first thought (assuming that we even put forth the effort to analyze what he was buying, which is a stretch) would be that he was going camping and had allergies. If he then told us to "hurry up" because he had to "go home and finish a cook," then we would assume that he had just run out the door, perhaps leaving a tin of muffins in the oven, and he wanted to get home quickly to finish them so he could take them on his camping trip. Never, ever, under any circumstances, would we make the connection to a meth lab without a suggestion from a third party. Never. It just wouldn't occur to us. Furthermore, we would have no idea which particular items or combinations of items were used in meth production anyway. Believe it or not, neither our education nor that of convenience store clerks has included a list of ingredients and apparatus for making meth, and until we started doing research for this Rant, we had no solid grasp of the methods or materials whatsoever. So, while we do believe that the meth sting was discriminatory, we also believe that, even if it wasn't, it was so poorly designed as to be grossly unfair to anyone regardless of their primary language. How the fuck can you base an investigation on the entirely false supposition that "everyone knows" what these slang phrases mean?
But surely the penalty for selling matchbooks without first ascertaining their intended use isn't all that severe. A small fine; some community service, maybe?
Those charged face up to 20 years in prison, forfeiture of their stores, fines of up to $250,000, and, in some cases, deportation. None of the South Asians targeted by Operation Meth Merchant are suspected of or charged with using, selling or producing methamphetamine.
Well, fuck! Just so everyone's clear, it bears repeating that no one is accusing these people of being involved with the actual production, distribution, or use of meth. They are charged only with selling normally legal items — and they face 20 years in prison, loss of their stores, a fine of a quarter of a million dollars, and deportation! That's fucking insane.
Now let's take a look at some of the more blatant signs of discrimination in the sting. You might be saying that the fact that 44 of 49 convenience store workers arrested were Indian really isn't that surprising. After all, there's a reason that the, well, "stereotypical" convenience store clerk is Indian — many of them are. But how do the numbers break down in the area where the sting took place?
Of the 49 individuals charged as a result of the investigation, 44 are of South-Asian descent — and 33 share the common last name of Patel. Notably, while more than 80 percent of area stores are owned by whites or other ethnic groups, 23 of the 24 stores targeted by the investigation are owned by South Asians.
Hey, how did whitey get in there? That one store that wasn't owned by South Asians probably had an Indian guy at the counter — gee, the cops must feel pretty foolish about that one oversight!
"Damn it, we accidentally trumped up a charge against a white guy! Our bad."
The ACLU also exposed evidence that police failed to act on numerous tips implicating at least 16 white-owned stores in the area. Forced to divulge the source of their ingredients to police upon arrest, methamphetamine manufacturers routinely identified this group of local white-owned stores, yet there is no indication that police acted on such leads.
In at least one instance, according to a witness statement cited in the ACLU's motion, law enforcement officials actually alerted a white store owner of the investigation and provided recommendations to avoid scrutiny, such as removing particular products from store shelves.
In its dismissal motion, the ACLU argues that the police's decision to ignore substantial evidence specifically pointing to white-owned stores, and instead target South-Asian-owned stores absent any evidence against them, constitutes a clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects people from being selectively targeted by law enforcement based on their race and/or ethnicity.
Huh. So, setting aside the point that drugs shouldn't be illegal in the first place, and setting aside the fact that, even if drugs are illegal, selling legal items that may or may not be intended for drug-related use shouldn't be illegal, and setting aside the fact that it is not reasonable to assume (to the point of basing an arrest solely on this assumption) that everyone knows what is meant by "cooking," these officers actually ignored the tips they were getting about various convenience stores and instead chose to focus on stores owned by Indians — stores which were apparently implicated by no one. So, what did we mean when we said that the discrimination was somewhat peripheral? We meant that yes, discrimination appears to have played a role in these stings, but that even without said discrimination, there were serious problems with how this whole investigation took place.
But the discrimination angle was what the ACLU pushed when they moved to have these cases thrown out. That didn't work out so well, it seems:
U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy refused Wednesday to toss out cases against dozens of South Asian merchants accused in the methamphetamine sting, rejecting the American Civil Liberties Union's argument that police intentionally targeted South Asian merchants while ignoring white-owned stores.
At hearings and in motions, the ACLU reminded the judge that 44 of the 49 retail clerks and convenience store owners indicted were South Asians, many sharing the last name Patel. They also called to the stand John Edward Ross, who claimed he overheard a GBI agent say he planned to close Indian stores down because the owners did not speak English.
One by one, though, Murphy rejected each argument.
His 38-page ruling noted that the defense lacks even basic evidence showing discrimination, citing a magistrate judge's earlier order that said allowing the group a chance to dig through more evidence would be authorizing a 'fishing expedition.'
He also threw out Ross' testimony, along with the written statements of two anonymous witnesses who never came forward to testify. And he echoed a previous ruling that 'simply pointing out that most of the individual defendants are of Indian national origin is insufficient.'
We understand why the judge rejected this argument — while common sense tells us that the officers engaged in discriminatory practices as part of this investigation, the law doesn't work on common sense — it works on evidence. And in this case, there wasn't much admissible evidence to back up the accusations of discrimination. So although the investigation was pretty clearly discriminatory, the judge seems to have done the right thing.
Now, the defendants can either challenge the validity of laws making the sale of legal items such as matchbooks illegal under certain nebulous circumstances, or they can make the painfully obvious argument that they had no idea that these people were buying mundane items in order to manufacture meth in the first place. Either way, we fully expect that these people will not be convicted. For selling...fucking...matchbooks.
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[ Filed under: % Civil Liberties ]
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