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Are the Police Working for the Community or Against it? You decide.

I am very used to dealing with police tactics in my role as a criminal defense lawyer that some might consider to be overly aggressive. But the tactics I am seeing more and more of recently are going beyond aggressive and are, in my opinion, becoming down right counterproductive to the basic goals of law enforcement. What I mean by that is that the police are utilizing tactics that are breaking down the fundamental trust relationship between the police and the community that is necessary, indeed essential, for effective law enforcement – mostly in the pursuit of non-violent drug offenders.

Let me give you two examples from just the last hour. Here are the facts:

I met with a client of mine this morning who had been charged with possession of marijuana. I literally could not believe my eyes when I read the police report. The police were in the neighborhood knocking on doors because there had been several burglaries in the area recently. My client was in his apartment minding his own business when the police knocked on his door. Before I go any further, you should know that my client is suffering from cancer of both the colon and the rectum. He is currently undergoing aggressive radiation and chemotherapy. He has a large pick line in his arm to administer his meds. He is bleeding regularly from his anus and is in so much pain that he literally cannot sit down. Several hours before the police knocked on his door he smoked a small amount of marijuana because it helps him with his pain and increases his appetite( oh and also because it gets him high which he finds an enjoyable thing to do in the privacy of his own home).

When he answered the door, the police officer asked him if he knew anything about the recent burglaries in the area. He told the officer that he didn’t at which point the officer told him that he smelled marijuana and that he wanted to search his apartment. My client told him that he didn’t have any more marijuana but produced the bowl that he smoked it from. The next thing he knows there are five cops in his house searching through his things. The first cop on the scene then makes him step outside in March in a t-shirt to talk to him about “the situation”. My client pointed to the pick line in his arm and told the cop he was suffering from cancer and that he was cold. The cop told him that he was only going to talk to him “for a few minutes” and would not let him go back inside. He then proceeded to grill him about where he got “the weed” and wanted my client to give him names and numbers of his “sources” to “make this go away”. My client of course refused and was subsequently charged with possession of marijuana and paraphernalia.

The police divert themselves from the investigation of an actual crime (burglary) to harass t a cancer patient who is smoking marijuana in his own home and try to get him to “snitch” on his source? Really? Does this strike anyone as the type of “police work” that is likely to build the type of relationship with the community that is necessary for effective law enforcement? Anybody think this guy even answers the door the next time the police come looking for assistance? What it does in reality is make this person and everyone who he tells about it less likely to cooperate with the police the next time they are investigating actual criminal activity. And when these tactics are repeated over and over again, it slowly breaks down the general trust that people instinctively have in the police to protect and serve their community.

While I was in this meeting I received a phone call from another client. He had been pulled over by the police for a minor traffic violation. According to him, the police officer searched his vehicle without his consent and found a small amount of drugs in the trunk of the vehicle. The cop then called in a narcotics detective who told him that he would not be “arrested” if he did a controlled buy from his source which means making a buy with the police either present or in a position to observe the transaction.

What the client didn’t understand until he called me was that when the detective told him that he would not arrest him, that did not mean that he was not going to charge him, which is of course what he understood the police officer to mean when he said he would not arrest him. This is a common tactic of narcotics detectives these days. The police intentionally mislead minor drug offenders into believing that if they cooperate with them that they will never be charged. In reality all they get out of becoming a police informant in most circumstances is to be charged at a later date – if they are really lucky by a summons and not a warrant. Anybody want to guess what the chances are of this person or his close family or friends trusting what a police officer tells them the next time they encounter one?

My point in all of this is that while I recognize that police have used deception in investigating crime since the beginning of time, these tactics used to be reserved for situations in which the police were investigating serious crimes and had run out of other avenues of investigation. These tactics were used sparingly because police necessarily understand that when they harass people for minor offenses such as smoking marijuana in one’s own home or intentionally mislead people, it has a corrosive effect on their relationship with the community whose cooperation they need to effectively do their jobs. These days, these common sense considerations seem to be increasingly sacrificed in order to pursue mostly meaningless drug arrests at any cost. This is, in my opinion, not a very good thing for the police or the community that they are sworn to protect and serve.