Ending New York City's Low-Level Marijuana Arrests Doesn't Fix The Problem

Ending New York City's Low-Level Marijuana Arrests Doesn't Fix The Problem

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to arrest fewer people for marijuana possession drew cautious optimism from elected officials and advocates on Monday, but they said they feared black and Latino men will continue to be disproportionately affected by marijuana laws.

De Blasio and NYPD Commissioner William Bratton Monday announced that starting Nov. 19, those found in public possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana will be issued a court summons instead of being arrested on a misdemeanor charge.

“This new policy will reduce unnecessary arrests for minor marijuana possession and put an end to an era where many of young New Yorkers were being arrested and saddled with criminal records for minor violations,” de Blasio said in a statement. De Blasio said the change would direct police resources “towards more serious crime” and not waste “officer time processing unnecessary arrests.”

There are, however, some caveats. Anyone caught with “burning” marijuana (smoking a joint) in public will still be subject to arrest. Additionally, those not carrying identification, or who are subject of an active warrant, will be arrested.

“Make no mistake, marijuana is still illegal in New York City,” Bratton said in a statement. “But possession of small amounts, with certain exceptions, is not considered a high enough level of offense to merit the time and resources the Department spends when arresting people, or the potential associated consequences of criminal justice involvement for the arrestees,” he added.

Those issued a summons, also called a desk appearance ticket, will have to show up in criminal court. If they don’t, an arrest warrant may be issued. In 2013, one-fourth of those who received summonses in New York for non-criminal violations failed to show up to court, according to The New York Times.

“The summons process in NYC is a major entry point into the maze of our broken criminal justice system, so even with a ticket, people will be swept into that maze with limited options for exit,” said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance.

“And right now,” Sayegh continued, “the police are almost exclusively arresting young men of color for marijuana, often as the result of an illegal search. It doesn’t make sense to allow a situation where we go from having gross racial disparities in arrests to gross racial disparities in summonses.”

U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) expressed similar concerns.

"This change appears to be a step in the right direction and a good-faith attempt by the Mayor to achieve a more equitable approach to minor marijuana possession in New York City. However, the new policy must be enforced equitably across all races,” Jeffries said in a statement. “To the extent the police department continues to disproportionately enforce the law in black and Latino communities, any administrative change on minor marijuana possession will constitute window-dressing in the name of reform. The policy must be accompanied by the NYPD's willingness to treat everyone equally."

Blacks and Latinos make up about 60 percent of New York City’s population. In the first eight months of this year, they represented 86 percent of the New Yorkers arrested for low-level marijuana possession. Seventy-four percent of those arrested had no prior criminal records.

Sayegh said he and the Drug Policy Alliance worry whether summons data will be collected. The public knows about racial disparities in marijuana arrests because a statewide system tracks such arrests. That system, however, doesn’t exist for summonses.

Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, who independently promised to stop prosecuting low-level marijuana arrests earlier this year, said he was skeptical of de Blasio’s plan. Summonses are not reviewed by district attorneys offices, he explained to the Times, which means violators won’t be provided legal representation when they show up at the busy Summons Court in lower Manhattan. "These cases will move forward even when due process violations might have occurred,” he told the paper.

New York City has been called the marijuana arrest capital of the world, even though New York state technically decriminalized possessing less than 25 grams of the drug in 1977.

The decriminalization law was intended to affect people carrying small amounts in a pocket or backpack, for example. Since the 1990s however, NYPD officers have routinely compelled New Yorkers during stop-and-frisk encounters to empty their pockets. When marijuana comes into “public view,” the person can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Over the last 20 years, there have been nearly 600,000 misdemeanor marijuana arrests in New York City. The vast majority of those arrested were black or Latino, though research shows that whites actually smoke marijuana at higher rates.

Sayegh said the city's announcement doesn't go far enough. "The mayor should actually do something progressive on this, which would be to launch a program to end the racial disparities associated with drug law enforcement, instruct the police to stop illegally searching people, and establishing a mechanism to provide relief to the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who have been subject to these broken policies and discriminatory enforcement practices,” he said.

Priscilla Gonzalez, of Communities United for Police Reform, said the real problem is police aggressively targeting black and Latino men.

"Real reform requires an end to unlawful searches, since they are a main driver of unlawful marijuana arrests," Gonzalez said. "If marijuana ticketing targets black and brown New Yorkers, it will only perpetuate racial profiling and discriminatory policing.”

The lukewarm reaction underscores advocates’ continued frustration with the lack of statewide marijuana reform. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) had promised in 2012 to decriminalize marijuana across the state, but backed off this year.

State Assemblyman Karim Camara (D) and state Sen. Daniel Squadron (D) introduced a bill this summer that would make all public possession of marijuana a non-criminal violation -- even for people caught in the act of smoking. The Fairness and Equity Act also would change what constitutes the “sale of marijuana.” Currently, someone caught passing a joint to a friend is considered a drug dealer. The bill also would vacate sentences for those previously convicted of publicly possessing marijuana.

Squadron said in a statement Monday that de Blasio’s plan was “an important acknowledgement that you shouldn't be able to predict who will be charged with a crime based on race and ethnicity,” and that the announcment shows “the need to change state law to ensure fairness.”

De Blasio promised during his campaign to rein in the number of marijuana arrests in the city, but a report earlier this year found that the NYPD is on pace this year to surpass the number of marijuana arrests made in 2013, during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s final year.

De Blasio is to meet with district attorneys from all five boroughs in the next week to go over the policy change. NYPD officers will receive a memo and watch a new training video on marijuana arrests.

Before You Go

Kathryn Johnston
In November 2006, a narcotics team from the Atlanta Police Department apprehended a man with a known drug history. They planted marijuana on him, then threatened to arrest him unless he gave them information about where they could find a supply of illegal drugs. He gave them the address of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. Instead of finding an informant to make a controlled buy from the address, the officer instead lied on the search warrant, inventing an informant and describing a drug buy that never happened.

When the police broke into Johnston's home on the evening of November 21, 2006, she met them with an old, non-functioning revolver she used to scare off trespassers. They opened fire. Two officers were wounded from friendly fire. The other officers called for ambulances for their colleagues. Meanwhile, they handcuffed Johnston and left her to bleed to death in her own home while one office planted marijuana in her basement.

A subsequent federal investigation revealed that lying on drug warrants was common in the APD, the product of a quota system the department imposed on narcotics cops. That system was the result of the pool of federal funding for drug policing, funding for which the department competed with other police departments across the country. The federal investigation and media reports also found numerous other victims of wrong-door police raids in the years leading up to Johnston's death. The entire narcotics department was later fired or transferred. While Johnston's death led to calls for changes in the way the city enforces the drug laws, there was little in the way of real reform. The city instituted a civilian review board to oversee the police department, but its powers were severely weakened after complaints from the police union, and its first director eventually resigned in frustration.

Sources: Ted Conover, "Alex White, Professional Snitch," The New York Times, June 29, 2012; Rhonda Cook, "Chain of Lies Led to Botched Raid," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 27, 2007; reporting by Radley Balko.
Isaac Singletary
Family photo
Known around the neighborhood as "Pops," 80-year-old Isaac Singletary moved into his high-crime Jacksonville, Fla., neighborhood in 1987 to care for and protect his sister and mother, both of whom were sick at the time. The retired repairman was known to sit in front of his house in a lawn chair to shoo trespassers and drug dealers away from his property.

But in January 2007, two undercover narcotics cops, posed as drug dealers, set up shop on Singletary's lawn. Singletary first came out of his house and yelled at them to leave. They didn't. He went back inside. Minutes later, he came out again and told them to leave, this time while waving a handgun. One of the cops then opened fire. Wounded, Singletary tried to escape into his backyard. The cops chased him down and shot him again, this time in the back. Singletary died at the scene. They never told Singletary they were police officers.

The police initially claimed Singletary tried to rob them, then they claimed Singletary fired first. Five witnesses said that wasn't true. Three months later, investigating state attorney Harry Shorstein initially expressed some frustration with the operation. "If we're just selling drugs to addicts, I don't know what we're accomplishing," he told the Florida Times-Union.

But three months later, Shorstein cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing. His report included a couple of inconsistencies. First, while attorneys for Singletary's family found four witnesses who said the police fired first, Shorstein could find only one -- a convicted drug dealer Shorstein deemed untrustworthy. Second, while Shorstein criticized the police officers for not identifying themselves before they started shooting at Singletary, he still put the bulk of the blame on Singletary himself. He concluded Singletary "was an armed civilian who refused orders to drop his gun," even though Singletary thought the orders came from two drug dealers.

Ironically, Singletary's death came a little less than two years after Florida passed a highly publicized law expanding the right to self-defense. The "Stand Your Ground" law removed the traditional legal requirement that when faced with a threat, you must first attempt to escape before using lethal force.

An internal report from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office also cleared the two undercover officers, Darrin Green and James Narcisse, of violating any department policies. The report, written by five members of the sheriff's department, concluded that they had followed department procedures, and that "no further action" was necessary. Narcisse, the first officer to fire at Singletary, was later fired for disciplinary reasons that the sheriff's department said were unrelated to the Singletary case.

Sheriff John Rutherford eventually conceded that Singletary was "a good citizen" and that his death was "a tragic incident." But he also rebuffed calls to end undercover drug stings like the one police were conducting on Singletary's property. Then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist called it one of the "challenges" of keeping a community safe. In 2010, the city of Jacksonville agreed to pay Singletary's family a $200,000 settlement, though the city admitted no wrongdoing.

Sources: David Hunt, "In the wake of 2 fatal shootings, some question police tactics," Florida Times-Union, January 27, 2007; Mary Kelli Palka, "A neighborhood wonders: Why isn't the sheriff here?; Rutherford says a federal review isn't needed, defends not going to the scene," Florida Times-Union, January 30, 2007; Bridget Murphy, "Man's family wants cops to face charges," Florida Times-Union, July 28, 2007; Jessie-Lynne Kerr, "Board clears officers in shooting; 'No further action' is needed by police in the case of the January death of an 80-year-old man," Florida Times-Union, August 2, 2008; Matt Galnor, "City to pay $200,000 in shooting; Officers killed man in 2007," Florida Times-Union, June 22, 2010; Bridget Murphy and Jim Schoettler, "Drug stings to continue, sheriff says," Florida Times-Union, January 30, 2007.
Johnathan Ayers
Family photo
In September 2009, Johnathan Ayers, a 28-year-old Baptist pastor from Lavonia, Ga., was gunned down by a North Georgia narcotics task force in the parking lot of a gas station. Police would later acknowledge he was not using or trafficking in illicit drugs. Instead, Ayers had been ministering to Johanna Barrett, the actual target of the investigation.

According to an interview Barrett gave to a North Georgia newspaper shortly after Ayers' death, on the day he died the pastor had seen her walking near a gas station on her way back to an extended-stay motel where she lived with her boyfriend. Ayers had known Barrett for a number of years, and offered her a ride back to the motel. He also gave her the money in his pocket, $23, to help pay her rent.

The police were trailing Barrett at the time. But instead of apprehending her at the motel, they instead followed Ayers, who they saw hand Ayers cash.

They followed Ayers to a nearby gas station where he withdrew some money from an ATM. Shortly after he got back into his car, a black Escalade pulled up behind him. Three officers, all undercover, rushed Ayers' vehicle and pointed their guns at him. The pastor panicked and attempted to escape. As he backed out, Ayers' car grazed one police officer. Officer Billy Shane Harrison then opened fire, shooting Ayers in the stomach. Ayers drove for another thousand yards before crashing his car. He died at the hospital. His last words to his family and medical staff were that he thought he was being robbed. The police found no illicit drugs in his car.

A grand jury later declined to indict Harrison for any crime. District Attorney Brian Rickman praised the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for going to "very extraordinary lengths" to conduct a fair investigation. But a civil suit suggested otherwise. The complaint alleged that Harrison wasn't authorized to arrest him. On the day Ayers was killed, Harrison had yet to take the firearms training classes required for his certification as a police officer. In fact, Harrison had no training at all in the use of lethal force.

Harrison's lack of training was later confirmed by local TV station WSB-TV and, after the fact, by the GBI. Harrison was suspended. The civil suit also alleged prior disciplinary problems with Harrison and another officer involved in her husband's death, including alleged drug use.

Sources: Rob Moore, "Case File: Ayers Feared a Robbery," The Northeast Georgian, December 29, 2009; Steve Huff, "Did a Good Dead Lead Pastor Jonathan Ayers to his Death?" September 10, 2009; Jessica Waters, "GBI Findings Outlined," The Toccoa Record, December 28, 2009; Denise Matthews, "Grand Jury Declares Ayers Shooting Justified," Franklin County Citizen, December 24, 2009; Charlie Bauder, "District Attorney Defends Investigation of Preacher's Death," Anderson Independent-Mail, December 22, 2009; Estate of Jonathan Ayers v. Officer Billy Shane Harrison, et al., complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, March 15, 2010; "Arrest Made in Pastor Death Case," Actions News 2, WSB-TV Atlanta, June 18, 2010; Rob Moore, "NCIS Officer on Leave Pending Probe," The Toccoa Record, March 29, 2010; Jessica Waters, "Ayers Federal Civil Case Updated," The Toccoa Record, January 6, 2011.
Donald Scott
Family photo
In October 1992, a team of police from state and federal agencies raided the ranch of 61-year-old Malibu millionaire Donald Scott. The raid was led by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, even though Scott actually lived in Ventura County. The police in that county weren't notified of the raid. Scott's new wife first encountered the police in the kitchen. Hearing her scream, Scott armed himself, and went to meet the intruders. He was shot dead in his home.

Scott was suspected of growing marijuana. Friends and relatives would later say that while Scott was a hard drinker, he wasn't a drug user, and in fact deplored the use of illicit drugs. The raid turned up no marijuana plants, nor any evidence of marijuana growth.

A subsequent investigation by Ventura County District Attorney Michael Bradbury was highly critical of the investigation, raid, and motives of the police agencies involved. Bradbury found ample evidence that the police agencies -- particularly the L.A. County sheriff's office -- were eyeing Scott's $5 million ranch for asset forfeiture, and had been told by the DEA that it could initiate forfeiture proceedings if authorities found as few as 14 marijuana plants. The report found that the warrant affidavits included false information, misleading information, and omitted information that would have indicated to a judge that Scott wasn't engaged in any illegal activity.

In 2000, Francis Plante -- Scott's widow -- settled with the various agencies involved in her husband's death for $5 million. No police officers were ever disciplined for Scott's death.

Sources: Michael Fessier Jr., "Trail's End; Deep in a Wild Canyon West of Malibu, a Controversial Law Brought Together a Zealous Sheriff 's Deputy and an Eccentric Recluse. A Few Seconds Later, Donald Scott Was Dead," Los Angeles Times Magazine, August 1, 1993; Michael Bradbury, "Report on the Death of Donald Scott by Ventura County District Attorney Michael Bradbury," March 30, 1993.
Esequiel Hernández, Jr
Family photo
Esequiel Hernandez, 18, was herding goats near his home in Redford, Texas, when he was killed by a team of U.S. Marines in 1997. Dressed in camouflage, the Marines were deployed near the border town as part of a federal program aimed at stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the United States from Mexico.

Hernandez carried a rifle to scare off predatory animals. When he heard noises from the hiding Marines, he fired in their direction. One Marine fired back, striking Hernandez in the chest. The U.S. government later paid the Hernandez family a $1.9 million settlement. None of the Marines was criminally charged.

Sources: "Oversight Investigation of the Death of Esequiel Hernandez, Jr.: A Report of Chairman Lamar Smith to the Subcommittee on Immigration & Claims of the Committee on the Judiciary," House of Representatives, 150th congress. United States Government Printing, January 1998; Monte Paulsen, "Fatal Error: The Pentagon's War on Drugs Takes a Toll on the Innocent," Austin Chronicle, July 11, 2008.
Tarika Wilson
Family photo
In December 2008, an undercover narcotics cop in Lima, Ohio, had bought cocaine from 31-year-old Anthony Terry. They could have arrested Terry then, but they didn't. They also could have arrested him two days before a raid on his home during a traffic stop when they found cocaine in the car. At the time he was pulled over, the police had been watching the home of Terry's girlfriend, 26-year-old Tarika Wilson. Instead, on Jan. 4, 2009, the Lima SWAT team staged a pre-dawn raid on Wilson's home.

Terry, on the first floor at the time, surrendered immediately. As Sgt. Joseph Chavalia ascended the steps to the second floor, he saw signs of movement in a bedroom. He ordered whomever was inside to drop to the floor. At about the same time, downstairs in the kitchen, one of Chavalia's fellow officers fired a few rounds at Terry's dogs. Chavalia mistook those shots for hostile fire and opened fire on the upstairs room. Two bullets from Chavalia's gun struck Wilson in the neck, while she was on her knees, with one hand in the air. Her other hand was holding her 1-year-old son, Sincere. Wilson died. Sincere was shot in the shoulder, and had a finger amputated.

Chavalia was charged with negligent homicide and negligent assault. A jury acquitted him on both charges. At the trial, a use-of-force expert and former Los Angeles Police Department SWAT member said that if anything, Chavalia should have fired at the unarmed woman sooner.

Despite the prosecutor's decision to charge Chavalia, an internal Lima PD investigation found that he had followed department use-of-force protocol. After his acquittal, Chavalia was returned to the force. Lima Police Chief Greg Garlock said he had no plans to change the way the police department used its SWAT team. In January 2010, the city of Lima settled with Wilson's estate for $2.5 million. The money was put in a trust for Sincere and her other children.

Sources: Christopher Maag, "Police Shooting of Mother and Infant Exposes a City's Racial Tension," The New York Times, January 30, 2008; Sarah Stemen, "Five years later: Friends, family of Tarika Wilson say nothing has changed," Lima News, January 4, 2013; "Experts: Woman on knees when shot," Associated Press, July 31, 2008.
Peter McWilliams
Family photo
Shortly after California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, the Clinton administration began drug raids on dispensaries and cultivators, even though they were complying with federal law. One of those raids was on the Los Angeles marijuana grow operation of Todd McCormick and Peter McWilliams.

McCormick used pot to treat the pain associated with a cancer treatment that had fused two of his vertebrae. McWilliams had been diagnosed with AIDS, then with non-Hodgkins lymphoma brought on by AIDS. Smoking marijuana eased his nausea, which helped him keep take his medication both to manage his AIDS the chemotherapy for his lymphoma. McWilliams was a self-help author, and had become an outspoken civil liberties activist. With respect to pot, he also made no attempt to hide the fact that while it was medicinal, it also made him feel good. The high took his mind off the fact that he was battling two diseases.

McWilliams and McCormick were raided in 1997, by DEA agents -- as McWilliams later described it, "guns drawn, commando-style." Because they were tried on federal charges, the jury wasn't allowed to hear that the two men had broken no California laws. McWilliams' doctors were also prohibited from testifying about his marijuana use. Because of those restrictions, McWilliams pleaded guilty and hoped for leniency.

But after his arrest, McWilliams' mother put up her house as collateral to post his bail. One condition of McWilliams' bail was that he refrain from smoking marijuana. Prosecutors told McWilliams and his mother that if he failed a drug test or was caught with pot she'd lose her house. So McWilliams abstained from using the drug. Consequently, he got sicker.

McWilliams was found dead in his apartment on June 14, 2000. Overcome with nausea, he had thrown up, then choked and aspirated on his own vomit. The conservative icon and legalization advocate William F. Buckley eulogized McWilliams in his syndicated column.

Peter McWilliams is dead. Age? Fifty. Profession? Author, poet, publisher . . .

What was his offense? He collaborated in growing marijuana plants.

What was his defense? Well, the judge wouldn't allow him to plead his defense to the jury. If given a chance, the defense would have argued that under Proposition 215, passed into California constitutional law in 1996, infirm Californians who got medical relief from marijuana were permitted to use it. The judge also forbade any mention that McWilliams suffered from AIDS and cancer, and got relief from the marijuana.

What was he doing when he died? Vomiting. The vomiting hit him while in his bathtub, and he choked to death.

Was there nothing he might have done to still the impulse to vomit? Yes, he could have taken marijuana; but the judge's bail terms forbade him to do so, and he submitted to weekly urine tests to confirm that he was living up to the terms of his bail . . .

Peter was a wry, mythogenic guy, humorous, affectionate, articulate, shrewd, sassy . . . Imagine such a spirit ending its life at 50, just because they wouldn't let him have a toke. We have to console ourselves with the comment of the two prosecutors. They said they were "saddened" by Peter McWilliams' death. Many of us are--by his death and the causes of it . . .

The struggle against a fanatical imposition of federal laws on marijuana will continue, as also on the question whether federal laws can stifle state initiatives. Those who believe the marijuana laws are insanely misdirected have a martyr.

Sources: Peter McWilliams, "The DEA Wishes Me a Nice Day," Liberty, May, 1998; William F. Buckley, Jr., "Peter McWilliams, R.I.P." Universal Press Syndicate, June 21, 2000; R.W. Bradford, "The Life and Death of Peter McWilliams," Liberty, August 2000; "Los Angeles Drug Case Bars Medical Marijuana Defense," The New York Times, November 7, 1999.
Rev. Accleyne Williams
Family photo
The Rev. Accleyne Williams, a 75-year-old retired minister, died of a heart attack on March 25, 1994, after struggling with 13 members of a masked, heavily armed Boston SWAT team that stormed his apartment. The police later revealed that an informant had given them incorrect information.

According to the Boston Herald, "a warrant authorizing the raid was approved by Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Mary Lou Moran, even though the application supporting the warrant did not specify which apartment on the building's second floor was to be targeted. It also failed to provide corroboration of the confidential informant's tip that a Jamaican drug posse operated out of the building."

Another police source told the Herald: "You'd be surprised at how easily this can happen. An informant can tell you it is the apartment on the left at the top of the stairs and there could be two apartments on the left at the top of the stairs . . . You are supposed to verify it, and I'm not making excuses, but mistakes can be made."

Another Boston Herald investigation later discovered that three of the officers involved in the Williams raid had been accused in a 1989 civil rights suit of using nonexistent informants to secure drug warrants. The city had in fact just settled a suit stemming from a mistaken raid five years earlier. According to witnesses, one of the officers in that raid apologized as he left, telling the home's terrified occupants, "This happens all the time."

Sources: Joseph Mallia and Maggie Mulvihill, "Minister Dies as Cops Raid Wrong Apartment," Boston Herald, March 26, 1994; Maggie Mulvihill, "Three Cops at Botched Raid Were Sued in Prior Gaffe," Boston Herald, April 1, 1994; John Milne, "Role of Informants Questioned," Boston Globe, December 27, 2005.
Ismael Mena
Family photo
In 1999, a Denver SWAT team raided the wrong house, and in the process shot and killed 45-year old Ismael Mena, a Mexican immigrant and father of seven. The police were acting on a tip from an informant, and claimed they knocked and announced themselves. Mena's family said they never heard a knock or announcement. Once the police had broken into Mena's home, they ascended a staircase and kicked open Mena's bedroom door, where they found him standing with a rifle. The police claimed Mena fired at them first, and they responded by shooting him eight times. They found no drugs or contraband in the home.

The Denver Police Department's Internal Affairs division was the first to clear the SWAT cops of any wrongdoing, although it did find that the officer who prepared the search warrant had falsified information on an affidavit. A special prosecutor then cleared them as well. But several weeks later, new details started to filter out, raising new questions about the investigation, the raid, and the aftermath.

First, an assistant to the special prosecutor came out and said that Mena's body had been moved. A crime lab report then determined that the gunshot residue taken from Mena's hands didn't match Mena's gun. Instead, it was consistent with the sort of residue from submachine guns like those used by the Denver SWAT team. Neither Mena's gun, nor the bullets inside it had fingerprints on them. The mounting evidence suggested someone had tampered with Mena and his gun after the SWAT team killed him.

The new evidence appeared to put Denver city and law enforcement officials on the defensive. Information began to leak out that Mena was a violent fugitive who was wanted in Mexico for murder. In truth, he had shot a man, claimed self-defense, and Mexican police declined to press charges. He wasn't a fugitive, and had returned to Mexico to visit family several times since the incident. The Denver Police Department Intelligence Unit also started a "spy file" on an activist group that formed in 2000 to advocate for police reforms in the wake of Mena's death. Several months later, Capt. Vince DiManna was transferred to lead that Intelligence Unit. DiManna also led the SWAT team that killed Mena.

In March 2000, the city of Denver settled with Mena's family for $400,000.

A subsequent Denver Post investigation found that the city's judges exercised almost no scrutiny at all when approving no-knock warrants. The Rocky Mountain News conducted its own investigation into the effectiveness of the warrants themselves. The paper found that of the 146 no-knock raids conducted in Denver in 1999, just 49 resulted in charges of any kind. Of those 49, two resulted in prison time.

Of those who police argued in warrant affidavits were dangerous enough to merit such dangerous tactics, a little over 1 percent went to prison. One former prosecutor said of the investigation, "When you have that violent intrusion on people's homes with so little results, you have to ask why." The investigation concluded that, "almost all of the 1999 no-knock cases were targeted at people suspected of being drug dealers. . . . Often the tips went unsubstantiated, and little in the way of narcotics was recovered. The problem doesn't stem only from the work of inexperienced street cops, which city officials have maintained. Even veteran narcotics detectives sometimes seek no-knock warrants based on the word of an informant and without conducting undercover buys to verify the tips."

A year before Mena's death, Colorado state senator Jim Congrove (R-Arvada), a retired undercover narcotics detective, introduced legislation that would have put tighter regulations on the deployment of SWAT teams, the issuance of no-knock warrants and the use of no-knock raids. The bill was rejected.

Sources: Alan Pendergrast, "Unlawful Entry," Denver Westword News, February 24, 2000; Mike Soraghan, "Outcry waters down no-knock measure," Denver Post, April 4, 2000.
Veronica and Charity Bowers
Family photo
In 2001, the Peruvian Air Force shot down a plane flying over the Amazon after receiving information from the CIA that the plane was trafficking narcotics. It was actually filled with Christian missionaries. The attack resulted in the death of 35-year-old Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter, Charity. Their deaths were the product of a joint operation between the CIA and the government of Peru to shoot down suspected drug planes.

Seven years later, CIA Inspector General John Helgerson issued a blistering report finding that the CIA repeatedly lied and covered up details about the plane intercept program, about the downing of Bowers' plane, and about similar incidents that never made the news.

"Within hours, CIA officers began to characterize the shootdown as a one-time mistake in an otherwise well-run program. In fact, this was not the case ... The routine disregard of the required intercept procedures in the ABDP led to the rapid shooting down of target aircraft without adequate safeguards to protect against the loss of innocent life," according to the report.

The report found that officers in the program thought adhering to safeguards too strictly could allow drug-smuggling planes to escape, and that it was easier to shoot planes down than to force them down with other planes. Consequently, "in many cases, suspect aircraft were shot down within two to three minutes of being sighted by the Peruvian fighter - without being properly identified, without being given the required warnings to land, and without being given time to respond to such warnings as were given to land."

Sources: Ross Colvin, "CIA faulted in shooting down of missionary plane," Reuters, November 20, 2008; Joanna Sugden, "Veronica Bowers: the long fight for justice". London: The Times, February 4, 2010.
Ashley Villarreal
Family photo
Ashley Villarreal, 14, was shot and killed by DEA agents in 2003 in San Antonio.

Ashley was attempting to show off her driving skills to family friend David Robles by taking a drive around the block. But at the time, the DEA was investigating Ashley's father, Joey Villarreal, for drug trafficking. As Ashley pulled out of the driveway of the home where Joey Villarreal's mother and Ashley lived, the federal agents were in the process of staking out the house.

Later explaining that they had mistaken Robles for Ashley's father, the agents boxed in the vehicle the girl was driving. They claimed she then continued driving toward them, at which point they opened fire, shooting her in the back of the head. Robles and several witnesses said the agents never identified themselves, and that Ashley posed no threat, given that her vehicle was already boxed in. The police found no drugs or weapons in the vehicle, or in the house, nor did they find any evidence that Ashley's father had been using the house for drug trafficking.

Nevertheless, the agents were cleared of any wrongdoing. Joey Villarreal was later arrested, convicted of drug charges, and sentenced to 19 years in prison.

Source: Pete Brady, "The Murder of Ashley," Cannabis Culture, October 8, 2003.
Rachel Hoffman
Family photo
Rachel Hoffman, 23, was murdered by drug traffickers in 2008 after agreeing to work as a police informant. In February 2007, Hoffman was arrested after a traffic stop search turned up 25 grams of marijuana. A year later, police searched her home and found another 5 ounces of pot, plus four Ecstasy pills.

In exchange for dropping the charges, Hoffman agreed to become a confidential informant for the Tallahassee Police Department. Hoffman, a recent college graduate, was set up to buy $13,000 worth of cocaine, guns and MDMA from two men she had never met.

During the transaction, the police lost track of Hoffman as the dealers took her to a different location than the one initially agreed upon. They murdered her with one of the guns she had intended to buy.

Outrage over Hoffman's death spurred the Florida legislature to pass "Rachel's Law" in 2009, which requires extra training for police officers who work with informants, and removes the possibility of lighter sentences in exchange for informant work.

Sources: Brian Ross and Vic Walter, "Botched Sting: Killed With the Gun She Was Supposed to Buy," ABC News 20/20, July 25, 2008; Sarah Stillman, "Pawns in the War on Drugs," The New Yorker, September 3, 2012; Florida Criminal Statutes, Title XLVII, Chapter 914.28.
Alberto Sepulveda
Family photo
On September 13, 2000, agents from the DEA, the FBI, and a Stanislaus County, California narcotics task force conducted a series of raids on 14 homes in the area of Modesto, Calif.

According to The Los Angeles Times, the DEA and FBI asked that the local SWAT teams enter each home unannounced in order to secure the area ahead of federal agents, who then came in to search for evidence. Federal agents warned the SWAT teams that the targets of the warrants, one of whom was Moises Sepulveda should be considered armed and dangerous. When local police asked if there were any children in the Sepulveda home, federal agents answered, "Not aware of any."

But Sepulveda had three children, a daughter and two sons. After the police broke into the Sepulveda home, Moises, his wife and children were ordered to lie face down on the floor as officers pointed guns at their heads. Moments later, Officer David Hawn fired his gun, killing 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda from point-blank range.

There were no drugs or guns in the Sepulveda home. A subsequent internal investigation by the Modesto Police Department found that the DEA's evidence against Moises Sepulveda, who had no previous criminal record, was "minimal." The city of Modesto and the federal government settled a lawsuit brought by the Sepulvedas for $3 million.

Modesto police chief Roy Wasden initially seemed to question the policies and tactics that caused the boy's death. "What are we gaining by serving these drug warrants?" Wasden asked. "We ought to be saying, 'It's not worth the risk. We're not going to put our officers and community at risk anymore.'" Two years later, as part of its settlement with the Sepulveda family, Modesto implemented changes in the way its SWAT team conducted drug raids, but the drug raids themselves continued.

A state commission assembled to investigate Sepulveda's death found that while SWAT teams in California were generally justified as necessary responses to emergency situations like hostage crises and terror attacks, they were most commonly used to serve drug warrants. But the panel's final recommendations did little to stop the practice. In fact, critics pointed out that even if the panel's suggestions had been implemented in the 1990s, the changes would not have prevented the death of Alberto, the reason the panel had been assembled in the first place.

In 2002, Moises Sepulveda pleaded guilty to a charge of using a telephone to distribute marijuana. He was sentenced to probation.

Sources: Michael G. Mooney, "Panel's SWAT Review Delayed; "Lockyer Commission Formed after Shooting Death of Modesto Boy," Modesto Bee, August 13, 2001; Kimberly Edds, "Lack of Training, Resources Blamed for Botched SWAT Team Responses," Metropolitan News Enterprise, July 19, 2001; Loie Fecteau, "Ex-Secretary of State Supports Drug Reforms," Albuqerque Journal, March 16, 2001; California Department of Justice, "Attorney General's Commission on Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) Final Report," September 10, 2002.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot