December 30, 1999
By Ari Armstrong, Dave Kopel
It seems the ends justifies any means in the ‘war on drugs’ these days, even if that means civil rights are trampled and innocent people killed.
The mental gyrations law officials and politicians engage in to support their draconian drug policies are crazy. Take, for instance, the case of Golden doctor James Metzger, whose $ 40,000 Lexus was taken by the Drug Enforcement Agency in April because the agency thought Metzger might have illegally filled drug prescriptions.
Metzger had not been charged at the time his car was taken, much less convicted of criminal acts. But Metzger used his car to drive to the pharmacy, which was enough for the DEA to charge the car itself with committing a crime in order to confiscate it for the agency’s own benefit.
Forfeiture laws that allow inanimate objects to be charged with a crime are just a convenient technique for pushing that pesky Fourth Amendment out of the way so that law officials can take people’s property without even filing criminal charges, much less having to prove a case in court.
But the case of the criminal Lexus is trivial, compared with the Sept. 29 killing of Ismael Mena by a Denver SWAT team. Mena was a 45-year-old father of nine. Based on information from a drug informant, the police obtained a ‘no-knock’ entry warrant, busted into Mena’s home without announcement, and shot Mena dead, riddling his body with eight bullets.
Months after the killing, Denver police aren’t even sure they had the right address. No illegal drugs were found in Mena’s home or body, and Mena’s family and neighbors swear he was an honest, law-abiding man.
Unfortunately, drug informants are often unreliable. In drug cases, ‘confidential informants’ are almost always drug dealers or drug addicts; the addicts get money to feed their habit by supplying police accusations against other people.
In the past, the police would be required to independently corroborate accusations. But in the 1980s, the U.S. and Colorado Supreme Courts eliminated the requirement that police corroborate accusations before getting a search warrant.
With no more evidence than an anonymous poison-pen letter, or the claims of a drunk, the police can now smash into your home in the middle of the night, wearing masks and waving submachine guns. And if you mistakenly believe the unannounced invaders pointing guns at your children are gangsters or burglars out to attack your family, you might tell your spouse to dial 911 while you hold off the invaders with your firearm.
And then, the invaders will kill you, like they did Ismael Mena. Like they did Donald Scott, a California millionaire whose mansion was targeted for a midnight raid because of deliberately fabricated claims that he was growing marijuana on his ranch.
Just because you are unarmed and offer no resistance, though, is no guarantee that you’ll live.
Just ask the family of Scott Bryant, who was shot dead by no-knock raiders in a trailer park in Wisconsin. Just ask the family of the late Rev. Acelyne Williams – a 70-year-old drug counselor who died of a heart attack after masked men broke into his Boston apartment, chased him into his bedroom, shoved him to the floor and pointed guns at his head while screaming at him. The masked men were from Boston police’s drug squad, and had targeted Williams’ apartment solely because of what a drunk ‘confidential informant’ told them.
The problem is not the split-second decisions that individual police officers make during a raid.
The problem is pandering politicians and irresponsible judges who set the stage for these tragedies, by sacrificing constitutional safeguards on the altar of the drug war.
In 1998, Colorado State Sen. Jim Congrove (a former undercover narcotics police detective) offered legislation to impose some regulation on no-knock raids, but the bill was shot down by lobbying from the District Attorneys Association.
While the objective of a ‘drug free’ society is as far away as ever, the drug war is making America an unfree society.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a rich white man in California who doesn’t use drugs, a black minister in Boston who doesn’t use drugs, or a Hispanic father of nine in Denver who doesn’t use drugs. There is nothing you can do to keep yourself safe from the drug war.
Ari Armstrong is the editor of the Colorado Freedom Report, a web-based libertarian magazine. Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute of Golden. Kopel is a former New York City prosecutor.
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