Archive for the ‘Narcotics’ Category

On the DEA’s Special Operations Division

Monday, August 5th, 2013

It should be clear by now that I’m no apologist for governmental overreach or law enforcement abuses. But after the news broke this morning about the DEA’s Special Operations Division, and everyone has been freaking out about yet another erosion of the Fourth Amendment, I feel like I ought to tone it down just a little bit. I have a little inside info here, because back in my days as a narcotics prosecutor, I dealt with them. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to divulge anything I shouldn’t.)

A lot of international drug trafficking takes place outside our borders, so the idea was to take advantage of intelligence data to make the drug war more effective. You just can’t use the intelligence  data in court. So SOD was formed as a way to make the information known, without compromising criminal investigations.

As reported, what the SOD does is get evidence from sources that can never see the light of day in court — usually from intelligence services here and abroad. Wiretaps conducted without regard to Title III because they’re not intended for criminal prosecution, top secret sources, and the like. If something comes up about some big drug trafficking — not at all uncommon to hear about in the intelligence world — then the SOD hears about it. Then they clue in law enforcement. It’s up to law enforcement to figure out how to gather the evidence legally. SOD’s involvement and its tips are rarely shared with prosecutors, and almost never with the defense or the courts.

So there’s a lot of understandable brouhaha that Obama’s eroding our privacy, the Fourth Amendment has been eroded even further, it’s unfair to the defense, this country’s going to hell in a handbasket, etc. People are concerned that law enforcement is “laundering” its evidence so it can use stuff that should have been inadmissible, and lying to everyone to cover it up.

First of all, this didn’t start on Obama’s watch. It got started under Clinton, back in ’94. And its existence has been fairly common knowledge in criminal law circles ever since. It’s even been reported on before.

Second of all, the whole “evidence laundering” thing isn’t quite accurate.

When I was dealing with them, back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, we in my office only half-jokingly called them “the dark side.” It was well understood that you couldn’t build a case off of their information. We’d never know where their information came from, for one thing. Without a source to put on the stand, the information couldn’t even be a brick in the wall of any case we wanted to construct.

And to be fair, the SOD folks themselves were very clear in their instructions: Their information was not to be used as evidence. It was only to help us figure out what we were looking at in an investigation, and let us know about other things we might want to be looking for. It was all along the lines of “how you gather your evidence is up to you, but you ought to know that this Carlos guy you’re looking at is part of a much larger organization, and his role is… and their shipment chain appears to have nodes here, here, and here… and your subject Gilberto over here is looking for a new local dealer.”

So what would you do? You’d realize Carlos wasn’t the top of the food chain, and start looking at your evidence in a different way, maybe change the focus of your investigation. And you’d pay more attention to traffic going to certain places. And you’d try to get an undercover introduced to Gilberto as his new dealer. You weren’t being spoon-fed evidence, but being clued in on where to look for it and what it might mean.

The Reuters article everyone’s citing quotes former DEA agent Finn Selander as saying “It’s just like laundering money — you work it backwards to make it clean,” in reference to a practice called “parallel construction.” He makes it sound like law enforcement obtained its trial evidence illegally, and then went back and tried to think up a way to make it look admissible. That would indeed be cause for much concern. And you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that’s something police do on a daily basis.

But that’s not what “parallel construction” means. It means “dammit, I have this evidence that I cannot use. Is there another way to go get this evidence that is lawful? Why yes there is! Let me go do that now.”

So let’s say you know that a blue van with Florida plates XXX-XXXX will be going up I-95 this weekend, loaded with heroin in a variety of clever traps. But you can’t just pull it over because you can’t introduce that information in court for whatever reason. Instead, you follow it in a series of unmarked cars, until it makes a moving violation. Which is very likely to happen, no matter how careful the driver is (it’s practically impossible to travel very far without committing some moving violation or other). You now have a lawful basis to pull the van over. And a dog sniff doesn’t even count as a Fourth Amendment search, so out comes the convenient K-9. And tada! Instant lawful search and seizure, and the original reason why you were following him is not only unnecessary but irrelevant.

It doesn’t matter if the original reason you wanted to pull the van over came from the dark side or from an anonymous tip or from a hunch. It’s a legal stop, and the original reason doesn’t matter. This is a very common scenario in day-to-day law enforcement, and isn’t specific to the SOD.

Or think of this equally very common scenario: Someone inside an organization has given you probable cause to go up on a wire and to arrest a lot of people. But you don’t want that person’s identity to ever come out, or even raise any suspicion that there was ever an inside informant. So you get that guy to introduce an undercover. Who maybe introduces yet another undercover. And you only use information that the undercovers themselves develop to build your probable cause and build your case. The original informant’s identity need never be disclosed.

Those examples are parallel construction. It’s not about going back and laundering your evidence. It’s about going forward to gather it lawfully this time.

I’m not saying the dark side isn’t cause for concern. Law enforcement and intelligence are supposed to be two entirely different things. We have given the government amazing intelligence-gathering powers on the understanding that it won’t be used against our own citizens, and won’t be used for law enforcement. A very good argument can be made that the SOD program subverts that super-important limitation on government power.

But it’s harder to argue that it violates the Fourth Amendment or gets evidence in court that should have been inadmissible.

If you’re gonna complain about it, at least complain for the right reason.

Making Drug Enforcement Work

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

 

Tomorrow’s issue of the Economist has a brief piece on some new drug policing in Virginia: “Cleaning Up the Hood: Focusing on drug markets rather than users means less crime.” The article is on DMI, or Drug-Market Intervention, a law-enforcement strategy that has been spreading around the country since it was first introduced in North Carolina about eight years ago.

DMI is a combination of community involvement and police commitment that focuses on street dealers. The community is encouraged to report dealers. Police then notify the dealers that they know who they are, but promise not to arrest them if they take part in an intervention. The dealers are confronted with community leaders who show them what their dealing is doing to the community — and who promise to help them change their ways if they’re willing. The dealers are given a second chance. Meanwhile, the police increase their presence in the area, and those caught dealing now get locked up. Quick police response and community involvement increases people’s willingness to report dealers, and a cycle begins.

Law enforcement has long known that you don’t eliminate a drug problem by going after demand — addicts and users are too numerous, and no matter how many you lock up they just keep coming. Meanwhile, street dealers continue to operate, destroying the safety and livability of the community. The addicts they attract, the nastiness they inflict, the violence they commit, and the fear they instill all combine in ruinous ways, engendering more crime and blight.

Buyers are easy to arrest, though, and if a police force is going to be judged by its arrest numbers rather than actual results (as politicians are wont to do), then there is a strong temptation to arrest the users. Not only does this do nothing to stop the dealing problem, the users are typically charged with modest possession offenses that put them right back out to buy again.

Drug courts and similar diversion programs do actually work wonders with helping users break their drug habits and overcome the life-skill deficits that often led to them. But those programs are typically reserved for those charged with crimes to begin with, many times only those charged with felony possession, and of those only the defendants who are likely to succeed in the program to begin with. They’re great, but they don’t solve the underlying problem.

These DMI initiatives recognize that, like so much else in society, it is (more…)

Just Around the Corner

Friday, October 1st, 2010

The Supreme Court is back in session on Monday, and we’re not ashamed to admit that we’re excited.  As always.  And they’re starting off the argument season with a bang — a critical issue on federal sentencing of gun crimes.  Can’t wait.

The case is actually two cases, Abbott v. U.S. and Gould v. U.S.  The issue is just what the heck 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) means.

§ 924(c) says, if you’re convicted of possessing a gun during a narcotics crime, you get a 5-year minimum sentence, to be served consecutively.  Unless, that is, “a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided by this subsection or any other law.”

Such straightforward language, and yet capable of so many different interpretations.  Is it written to make sure that you get at least 5 years if you carried a gun during a drug crime?  Or is the point to make sure that you get at least an extra 5 years, added to the original sentence?

Does it mean that, if you’re already facing a mandatory minimum greater than 5 years for the gun, then § 924(c) doesn’t even apply?

Does it mean that, if you’re (more…)

What Nobody’s Mentioning about the New Crack Sentencing Law

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

 

Yesterday, President Obama signed S.1789, the long-awaited sentencing fairness act that reduced the appalling 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  It still doesn’t go all the way to undo the hysteria of the crack epidemic, however.  For powder cocaine there’s a 10-year minimum for selling or possessing with intent to sell 5,000 grams — for crack cocaine the figure was just 50 grams, but that just went up to 280 grams.  There’s a 5-year minimum for selling/possessing with intent 500 grams of powder — for crack that just went up from 5 grams to 28 grams.  So there’s still a roughly 18-to-1 sentencing disparity.  And the 5-year mandatory minimum for mere possession of crack — personal use here — was eliminated entirely (it had applied to possession of 5 grams for first offenders, 3 grams for second offenders, and 1 gram for third offenders).

That’s all good news.  Getting rid of the mandatory minimum for mere possession is the best part, because throwing people in jail for mere possession is stupid, wrong, unjust, and doesn’t solve the problem.  Drug court and treatment diversion programs work very well.  (The new law also requires a federal report one year from now on just how well the federally-funded drug court programs are doing.)  Reducing the sentencing disparity from the appalling (and racist) 100-to-1, to the merely shocking (and still racist) 18-to-1… well, it’s better than nothing.  Powder and crack are equally bad, there is no disparity in their effects, their addictiveness, or anything meaningful.  There shouldn’t be any disparity at all.  But reducing it is a step in the right direction, and the new law is rightly praised for so doing.

But in all the hoopla, the press (and the defense bar) seem to have overlooked the other provisions of the new law — provisions which can dramatically increase some drug sentences.

There are now 2+ level enhancements for drug crimes involving violence or the threat of violence (not unheard of).  There are now 2+ level enhancements if premises were used for the manufacture or distribution (very common).  There will be 2+ level enhancements if the defendant was using his girlfriend to mule the drugs, or an addict to sell the drugs on the street in exchange for a freebie, or any other typical buffering relationship.  There will be 2+ enhancements if they sold to, or involved, someone under 18, someone over 64, or someone who was pregnant (common).  There are 2+ enhancements if the defendant made his living by selling drugs (a majority of cases, no?).

That’s just a partial list of enhancements.  But you can see how a typical drug defendant can now wind up facing significantly more time now than before Obama signed “the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. ”

We can think of a number of ways to describe the new law.  “Fair Sentencing” is not one of them.

Myth #2: Cops Can’t Lie

Friday, June 18th, 2010

For as long as we can remember, the word on the street has always been that cops cannot lie.  So if you’re doing a drug deal with an undercover cop, and you ask him point blank if he’s a police officer, then he has to tell you the truth.  He might try to technically get out of it by saying yes in a sarcastic tone of voice, but he has to be able to testify later on that he did say he was a cop.

And for as long as we can remember, we thought that was dumber than dirt.  The first time we heard this, back in our dim and distant teens, we imagined something like this:

ruacop

It just made no sense.  And, of course, it’s simply not true.  No undercover cop is ever going to jeopardize his investigation or his safety by admitting to the fact that he (or she) is a cop.  And there is no rule anywhere that says they have to.

But even so, this myth has persisted.  We can’t count how many cases we’ve dealt with where (more…)

Dammit, Dillon!

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Just a quick update.  The Supreme Court decided Dillon v. U.S. today (read the opinion here), and the decision totally sucks.  Here’s what we said about it a couple of weeks ago:

There are a lot of federal inmates serving unfairly long sentences, due to the bizarre discrepancy in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine.  (See our latest piece on this here.)  In 2007, the Guidelines were amended a teeny bit, permitting a 2-level reduction for crack cases.  In 2008, that was made retroactive, so prisoners could get resentenced.  Dillon wanted to get resentenced.  But he wanted more than the 2-level reduction.  He wanted a departure from the Guidelines recommendation itself, as permitted by Booker.  But the feds say Booker only applies to full sentencing proceedings, not to resentencings like this — this is just an adjustment of the guideline range that should have been applied to a pre-Booker sentence.  As Scalia pointed out at oral argument, that would require the courts to essentially disregard Booker.  And given the universal loathing of the crack/powder disparity, we think a finding for Dillon would give the courts the ability to take the injustice into account and impose variance sentences more proportional to those for powder.

But noooo.

Writing for a 7-1 majority (Stevens dissented, and Alito recused himself), Justice Sotomayor said that Booker doesn’t apply here — the Guidelines are not advisory, and have to be applied as they were back in the bad old days.

This is just infuriating.  The 100-1 disparity in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine is fundamentally unjust.  One would think that the judiciary would just wipe it out as simply unconstitutional.  But instead, we get the Supremes saying §3582(c)(2) — the whole point of which is lenity for those sentenced under the disparate Guidelines — doesn’t allow for any lenity beyond what the Guidelines themselves permit.

Sotomayor’s legal reasoning isn’t bad.  It’s actually pretty good.  But her result is appalling.

Is Dolan a Clue to the Upcoming “Honest Services” Decisions?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010
tammany_tiger
We’re still waiting to hear how the Supreme Court decides the trio of cases on “honest services” fraud.  In the meantime, we’re wondering if yesterday’s Dolan decision might be a harbinger of what’s to come.

In Dolan, the Court was dealing with a vague statute.  It left out a crucial statement of what ought to happen if the court missed a deadline.  They could have sent it back to Congress to specify what ought to happen.  After oral arguments, during which both the progressive Stevens and the formalist Scalia seemed inclined to do just that, we figured it was probably going to happen.  But we figured wrong. 

Instead, the Court split 5-4, not on ideological lines, but on seniority.  The five most junior justices agreed to craft their own remedy language for the statute, based on what they felt the general purpose was supposed to be.  The four more senior justices wanted Congress to amend the statute itself, and pointed out that the juniors’ interpretation actually undermined the existing language already in the statute.

We wonder if we’re going to see a similar split (and similar strange bedfellows) in the “honest services” cases of Black, Weyrach, and (more…)

The Suspense is Killing Us

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

300 supreme court

There are four Mondays left in June.  Four more days in which the Supreme Court is expected to announce its decisions in the 27 or so cases still out there this term.  That’s about one case per day from now till then.  We’re picturing the Justices pulling all-nighters, stacks of empty pizza boxes in the halls at 2 a.m. next to the burn bags (do they still use burn bags there?), and sleepy zombie-like clerks dropping in their tracks every now and then.

Some of those cases have to do with boring old civ pro or shipping or labor law.  But a whole bunch are about the cool stuff, criminal law.  Here are a few of the criminal cases we’re watching particularly closely:

Black v. United States
Weyrauch v. United States
Skilling v. United States

This trio of cases attack the “honest services” fraud law.  18 U.S.C. § 1346 was supposed to prevent political corruption, but Congress wrote it so sloppily that it’s become a catch-all crime for federal prosecutors.  Anyone can get charged with it, and nobody knows what it means.  The Court telegraphed its dislike of the statute during oral arguments of all (more…)

Supreme Court Smackdown

Monday, January 25th, 2010

300 supreme court

“Why is this case here, except as an opportunity to upset Melendez-Diaz?”

So wondered Justice Scalia during oral argument a couple weeks back in the case of Briscoe v. Virginia. For some background, see our previous post on this case here. Briefly, the Supreme Court held last year in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts that, in a drug case, the prosecution cannot prove the existence of a controlled substance by merely introducing the lab report — the chemist has to testify, or else the Confrontation Clause is violated. There was a huge outcry from prosecutors’ offices across the country. It would be too much of a burden to get chemists to testify at every drug trial. There was a concerted effort to get around this new ruling, or better yet to get the Supremes to reverse themselves.

So in Briscoe, Virginia tried to get around the rule by saying the prosecution only needs to introduce a lab report, and if the defense wants to confront the chemist then the defense can subpoena the chemist as a witness.

More than half the state attorneys-general filed an amicus brief, arguing that the expense and administrative burden of getting chemists to testify at trial would just be (more…)

No, Virginia, You Can’t Get Around the Confrontation Clause by Shifting the Burden of Proof

Monday, January 4th, 2010

On June 25 last year, the Supreme Court held in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts that in a drug case the prosecution can’t simply use a sworn lab report to prove the existence of a controlled substance. If the chemist doesn’t testify, it violates the Confrontation Clause. (See our previous post about it here.)

Four days later, on June 29, the Court granted cert. in Briscoe v. Virginia, to decide whether the states can get around this requirement if they permit the defendant to call the lab analyst as a defense witness. Oral arguments are scheduled for next Monday, and we can’t wait to hear how the Commonwealth of Virginia tries to make its case.

It seems to us that there is an obvious burden-shifting problem here. The state, and only the state, has the burden of proving every element of the crime. Since the Winship case in 1970, this has been a due process requirement of the Constitution. Unless he asserts an affirmative defense, the defendant has no burden to prove a thing.

So the prosecution has to prove an element. It needs a forensic test to prove it. It needs the testimony of the analyst to introduce the results of that test. The defense does not have a burden to prove anything, one way or the other, about the test.

But Virginia wants to be able to prove its case using only the lab report, and get around the Confrontation Clause by saying the defense is allowed to call the analyst if they want to confront him.

First, who cares whether the state allows the defense to call the analyst or not? Last time we checked, the defense could call any witness they chose, by subpoena if need be. The defense always has the opportunity to put the analyst on the stand as a defense witness. This “permission” doesn’t actually give the defense permission to do anything it couldn’t already do. All it does is imply wrongly that the defense couldn’t have done so otherwise.

Second, the state cannot impose a burden of proof on the defense like this. Virginia’s scheme essentially precludes the defense from challenging the state’s evidence during the state’s case. It forces the defense to act affirmatively and put on a defense case in order to challenge the state’s evidence. That’s a big due process violation.

Third, the state does not get around the Confrontation Clause by shifting the burden to the defendant to call those witnesses it wishes to confront. In a murder case, it would absurd to let the prosecution introduce an eyewitness’s written account of what happened, and no more, so long as the defendant himself could have called the eyewitness if he wanted to. That’s indistinguishable from what Virginia wants to do.

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Lots of prosecutors’ offices are hoping that the Supremes will side with Virginia on this one. Particularly in the more amateurish offices, there is a feeling that the Melendez-Diaz decision imposes too great a cost on the criminal justice system, and imposes unworkable inefficiencies, by requiring chemists to take time off from their busy jobs to testify at trial. An amicus brief filed by half the nation’s attorneys general makes these arguments.

But just look here at New York City, the busiest criminal courts and crime lab in the world. Lab reports are used in the grand jury, where there is no confrontation right, but the chemists themselves must testify at trial. Somehow, this requirement has not bankrupted the city. Getting the chemist to show up is just one more minor hassle that prosecutors have to deal with, no more challenging than getting cops to show up. The requirement is so minor that nobody really thinks about it.

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Still, Melendez-Diaz was a 5-4 decision. And one of the five, Justice Souter, has been replaced by former prosecutor Justice Sotomayor. So people are thinking that she’s going to be more pro-prosecution here, and help the Court either reverse or severely limit that decision.

We don’t think so. We’d remind Court observers that Sotomayor came out of the Manhattan DA’s office, not one of the “amateur hour” offices. Her own personal experience is that requiring the chemist to testify at trial is really no big deal.

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So we’re looking forward to the oral arguments next week. If Scalia gives as good as he did in last June’s decision, and if we’re right about Sotomayor, then Virginia’s in for a spirited beatdown.

Stop the Presses: Drug Court Works

Monday, November 30th, 2009

 

The AP’s Sam Hananel has a nifty piece on Law.com today, called “Drug Courts Successful for Few Who Get In.” He sums up the situation fairly well. The short version is “drug court works, and with more funding it would work even more.”

A lot of crime is the result of drug addiction. Addicts deal drugs, rob, steal, burglarize and hurt people just to feed their addiction. Other crimes would never have happened but for that addiction. And addicts tend to keep committing these crimes over and over again. The damage to society is great, and the public cost of dealing with it is enormous.

So if we could somehow stop the addiction, the thinking goes, then we could prevent a large amount of future crimes and save ourselves a lot of resources. That’s where drug court comes in. If selected for drug court, addicts get treatment and counseling. And if they succeed, their case gets dismissed or reduced in the interests of justice.

That’s the carrot. There’s a stick, as well. Before entering the program, the offender has to take a plea. No judgment is entered, however. If the offender completes the program successfully, then they get their plea back. If they fail, however, then that plea can be enforced, and they face jail.

But a drug program that’s going to work is also going to be very hard to endure. Lots of offenders would rather just do the time, frankly. Because it’s not just about kicking the habit. Quitting is the easy part. Look at any population of inmates who can’t afford to maintain their drug habit while incarcerated, if you want to see “cold turkey” in action. The problem is, when they get out, they go right back into the same neighborhoods, with the same temptations, the same social pressures, and the same inability to just say “no.” They never rejoin lawful society.

So a decent drug program is going to hammer home, not only the ability to say “no” and keep pissing clean, but also the skills one needs to survive in law-abiding society. How to get a job, and keep it. How to take care of oneself, one’s family, and even put some savings aside. How to get that high school equivalency, or vocational certificate that can make all the difference in the world. It’s damn hard.

But it works. For those who graduate these programs, a mind-boggling 75% stay out of trouble. They’re cured. It worked.

Of course, a large reason why the success rates are so high is that candidates are cherry-picked by DA’s offices. Sources cited in the AP article complain about this selectivity, but in a world where the number of addicts vastly outweighs the resources available for treatment, it is hardly surprising that the government would focus its resources on those addicts most likely to respond to treatment. Accepting someone who’s probably going to fail is doubly unjust — it wastes tax dollars that could have helped another equally-needy addict, and it sets up the failer for the big stick punishment.

That big stick punishment is another complaint we’ve heard, and it pops up in the AP article, too. It’s not fair, they say, to require defendants to take a plea before they go into treatment. But these critics fail to recognize that it is a crucial part of the equation. Without the plea first, there is no incentive not to backslide. We’re talking about people who have already exercised poor judgment, poor impulse control, and a general tendency to take the easy way out. And again, this is a difficult process. Offering a risk-free escape route would set the whole system up for failure. It would be unjust, and a huge waste.

On top of that, the system would have to resuscitate each case one by one as people dropped out of the programs. DA’s offices would never be able to close a case, really. It would only increase their uncertainty and their workload. What possible incentive would they have to recommend our clients for treatment in such a situation? Time to be realistic, people.

So screw the naysayers. When we were narcotics prosecutors, we liked it. Now that we’re on the side of the angels, we love it. It makes a difference. It works. Keep both the carrot and the stick, if you want it to keep working. And if you want less cherry-picking, cough up more taxes so there are enough spots for all the good candidates, and then cough up some more to pay for the long shots.

In the meantime, let’s keep working to make it work.