Baby Bou-Bou and the War on Drugs


Last week, a horrifying incident occurred in Habersham county. Cops on a drug raid tossed a flash-bang grenade into a house they were raiding when they found something blocking the door. That thing was a crib and inside the crib was 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh. He’s now in critical condition after suffering severe chest and face wounds and burns when his crib caught fire. Doctors give him only a 50 percent chance of survival. One lung has failed. By the time I post these words, he may be dead. He has three older sisters who love him to pieces and have been basically crying non-stop for the last week.

In the immediate aftermath, the cops claimed that everything they did was justified. They said there was a dangerous meth dealer in the house, that they’d seen men armed with assault rifles, that an informant had tipped them off and they’d made an undercover buy. They blamed the family for putting the toddler in harm’s way by dealing drugs.

Almost all of that is now known to have been a lie:

Police surveillance should have revealed that children had been playing in front of the the house for two months and that a van with four car-child seats was parked in the driveway that officers crept by the night of the raid, said Mawuli Mel Davis.

The warrant contended that an undercover agent had purchased methamphetamine at the house the day before and officials justified the no-knock warrant on the grounds that the drug dealer was dangerous and possessed firearms.

Raiders found no drugs, gun or cash — nor the suspected drug dealer — at the house but did find the Phonesavanh family who was visiting from Wisconsin after their house had burned.
The suspected drug dealer, 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva, was arrested later and was in possession of about an ounce of methamphetamine, Terrell said.

Now some people will try to tell you this is an isolated unfortunate incident. I don’t think you can write off the possibly fatal charring of a toddler that way. But they are also lying. Radley Balko has a rundown of incident after incident where flash-bangs have been deployed in these kind of situations. These are instruments of war. People’s houses have been burned down, people have been killed, other children have been scorched.

Nor is this an isolated incident in Habersham County. A few years ago, the same jurisdiction (different task force) gunned down pastor Jonathan Ayers. They thought he had bought drugs and came roaring up in an SUV, brandishing guns. The officers were in plain clothes and had little badges dangling from their necks. Not realizing they were cops, he tried to drive away and was shot and killed. The investigation exonerated the cops and concluded Ayers might have been paying for sex. His wife, however, found out that the cop who killed Ayers hadn’t been trained in the use of lethal force and the task force and investigators were hip-deep in nepotism. The county settled the case for $2 million. They clearly didn’t learn anything, however.

The lack of drugs and guns makes this more horrifying, but it’s kind of a side point. Even if the Phonesavanh family had been dealing meth — which they fucking weren’t — this raid would not have been justified. Launching a no-knock violent raid without even a basic assessment of the situation is something we wouldn’t do in Afghanistan, let alone Habersham County. Launching a no-knock violent raid of any kind in the United States against American citizens is something that should be used only in extreme situations, not routinely. That’s true even if they are dealing drugs. When you routinely launch drug raids in the middle of the night with military gear and officers trained to throw flash-bangs into homes, something like this is inevitable. We’re lucky there haven’t been more babies burned by this callous bullshit. And all for the glorious end of keeping Americans from getting high.

The War on Drugs is not a metaphor; it is literally a war on our own people. Baby Bou-Bou just became the latest horrific casualty. We’ve ended the War in Iraq. We’re ending the War in Afghanistan. When are we going to end this one? How many burned children, traumatized families and dead bodies is it going to take before we say, “enough!” I’m not even talking about decriminalizing drugs, here. You can keep drugs illegal. But isn’t it about time we stopped treating our own country like a battlefield?

Update: Let’s count the ways this could have been prevented.

  • They could have surveilled the house for more than about ten seconds.
  • They could have talked to a neighbor.
  • They could have used more than one informant.
  • They could have arrested the drug dealer in broad daylight when he came out of the house (he was kicked out of the house that day).
  • They could have noticed that the van in the driveway had kiddy seats in it instead of using it as cover.
  • Finding one door blocked, they could have entered from a different door.
  • They could have been trained to not toss a flash-bang grenade into an uncertain situation.
  • None of those steps involve legalizing drugs or letting criminals run free. They involve not immediately escalating a situation to a violent confrontation. Patterico makes this point:

    Don’t treat this like the cops intended this. They didn’t. When the story says deputies are distraught over this, I believe it. Cops don’t go into law enforcement to hurt small children.

    But look: if you use stun grenades in the service of a no-knock warrant like this, tragedies like this are going to happen. The question that police (and members of the public who pay the police) have to ask themselves is this: is it worth this kind of risk to arrest people for the crime in question? If the crime is murder, you might have one answer. If the crime is selling drugs, you might have another.

    And if the answer to that question (should we use this tactic knowing the risk?) is “no” . . . then don’t do it.

    There’s no question in my mind what the answer is.

    Mercy in the Drug War

    If the DOJ is to be believed, the President, who has so far granted the fewest Presidential pardons since John Adams, may grant clemency to hundreds, perhaps thousands of victims of the War on Drugs:

    The Obama administration’s new clemency efforts became official today, as the Department of Justice announced the start of their revamp of the petition process that could end up commuting thousands of sentences. Deputy Attorney General James Cole promised “an extensive screening system” to identify only those who have served significant time in federal prison for their offenses, have kept their noses clean (figuratively and literally), and whose convictions did not involve violence. The DoJ will offer pro bono legal services to those who qualify to navigate the clemency petition process as well.

    The criteria mentioned by Cole are published at DoJ as well:

  • They are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today;
  • They are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels;
  • They have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence;
  • They do not have a significant criminal history;
  • They have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and
  • They have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.
  • A few years ago, Congress reduced the huge discrepancy between cocaine and crack sentencing. The President appears to be mostly applying the Fair Sentencing Act to people who were swept up in the sentencing craze of the 90′s.

    This is part of a larger push, mostly at the state level, toward reducing mandatory sentencing and reducing non-violent prison populations. A lot of people are surprised that the push toward prison and sentencing reform is being largely driven by conservatives:

    In Texas, funneling money to special courts (like drug courts or prostitution courts), rehabilitation, and probation in an effort to make sure current offenders don’t reoffend, instead of continuing to make room for more prisoners, has resulted in billions saved and dramatically lower crime rates. In just the last three years, Texas has shut down three prisons.

    The conservative movement to reform prisons is not new. Republican governors in Georgia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio have all made efforts in recent years to address growing incarceration rates. But it has largely remained on the periphery of the mainstream—the stuff of columns and local reports that do nothing to sway the general public.

    I, however, am not surprised. What conservative would oppose shrinking government, cutting spending and putting productive citizens to work? If someone is truly dangerous, they absolutely belong in prison. But there are thousands upon thousands of people in prison who are not dangerous. Hell, even some of those who committed violent crimes are not beyond redemption. Consider the case of Mike Anderson. Convicted of armed robbery, the State of Missouri mistakenly thought he was in prison for 13 years. The state suddenly realized their mistake and want to jail him. In the meantime, he’s become a carpenter, a business owner, a religious man and a law-abiding father of four. What’s the point in jailing him now? Does it make society safer? Prison is a means to an end; the end being a safer society. It is not an end in and of itself.

    For once, the Obama Administration is doing something that will reduce government power and result in an increase in freedom. I think that’s why the response I have seen in the conservative blogosphere has been, like Ed Morrissey above, cautiously supportive.

    One of the few dissenters is Andrew McCarthy, who claims the President is abusing his power. I find this argument dubious coming from a big-time supporter of the unitary executive who has argued that the President has the power to start wars and torture people. But I especially find it dubious because the pardon power is one of the few instances where the President has unlimited ability to check the power of the judiciary and legislative branches. Presidents have used this power extensively in the past — Ford and Carter for draft dodgers, for exmaple. The language is pretty straight-forward.

    The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

    This is constitutional and permitted. The pardon power can be abused, certainly. Bill Clinton’s final days in office come to mind. But the President isn’t abrogating a law. He is considering — on a case by case basis — the sentences of people who are serving harsher sentences than they would if they were convicted today.

    The more I look at this, the more it seems like a good idea. It’s a small step backward in the devastating War on Drugs our nation has been fighting for forty years. I don’t say this often but the President is doing the right thing.

    Drugs Are Still Bad, M’Kay?

    This weekend, we lost another celebrity to drugs. Philip Seymour Hoffman, a brilliant actor, OD’d on heroine. He left three kids behind.

    As you know, I am vehemently opposed to the War on Drugs. But this does not mean I approve of them. It means I think that the “cure” isn’t a cure at all and, to the extent that it is, is worse than the disease.

    But drugs can be vile things. Nicotine addiction destroys hearts and lungs and leaves everything smelling awful. Alcohol is good in moderation, but we have tens of millions of problem drinkers who, among other things, kill thousands of innocent people on our roads. Pot, which I’ve never used, seems OK in moderation but I do know people who’ve spent years just sitting on their couch, just working long enough to get the next joint.

    But it’s at the hard stuff where my libertarianism falters. Meth, coke, crack, heroine — these are simply awful things. It’s true that most people who try them won’t get addicted. But many do. And some end up like Hoffman, dead on the floor of a hotel room, decades of potential snuffed out and grieving families left behind. Heroine is particularly dangerous in this because the purity of it can vary, leading to accidental overdoses (it’s thought that Janis Joplin died because the heroine she was using was purer than she was used to).

    Hard drugs are not unique in their lethality. People die of alcohol poisoning; one of my best friends was nearly carried off by it. And combinations of prescription and over-the-counter drugs have addicted many and killed people like Brittany Murphy and Heath Ledger.

    In the end, however, the problem of drugs — legal and illegal — is a social problem and a medical problem. Throwing cops and judges into this does not save people’s lives; it only creates a massive industry of jails, asset forfeiture and no-knock raids.

    But opposing the awful machine of the War on Drugs doesn’t mean we can’t be angered at the stupidity of it all when a young and talented person dies because of the vile trash that is heroin.

    The Demons of the Demon Weed

    Alberto Willmore was a beloved art teacher in Manhattan. Two years ago, police busted him, claiming a marijuana joint they found on the ground belonged to him. He then fell into a morass of legal system delays and education bureaucracy bullshit that he is only now just emerging from.

    We think that the two million people in prison are the only damage out insane War on Drugs does. Watch the video to see what a “minor” pot arrested can do. This happens 40,000 times a year and 90% of the arrestees are black, even though blacks use marijuana at rates comparable to whites.

    (H/T: Amy Alkon)

    From the War on Terror to the War on Everything

    Me, when the NSA story broke:

    we know that these powers, especially when they lurk in secret, only have a tendency to expand. Powers intended for terrorism rapidly extend to drugs (which often involve foreign agents) and are then extended to ordinary crime. Think about the Constitution-shredding tactics used in the War on Drugs — asset forfeiture, for example — and how they been extended beyond the War on Drugs. Once you give our government a hammer, they will get the courts to rule that everything is a nail.

    Reuters today:

    A secretive U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit is funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.

    Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin – not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.

    The undated documents show that federal agents are trained to “recreate” the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated, a practice that some experts say violates a defendant’s Constitutional right to a fair trial. If defendants don’t know how an investigation began, they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence – information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses.

    “I have never heard of anything like this at all,” said Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law School professor who served as a federal judge from 1994 to 2011. Gertner and other legal experts said the program sounds more troubling than recent disclosures that the National Security Agency has been collecting domestic phone records. The NSA effort is geared toward stopping terrorists; the DEA program targets common criminals, primarily drug dealers.

    You see that? If Reuters’ reporting is accurate, they’re being fed data from War on Terror sources, then using that to launch their investigations, after which they cover up their tracks. They then go into court and perjure themselves claiming that the investigation originated elsewhere. While technically no information is presented that violates exclusionary rules, the privacy of Americans is thoroughly and systematically gutted.

    I’m awaiting further reporting on this subject. But if Reuters’ account is born out, this is an extremely serious scandal.

    Update: More from the NYT. The agencies are clamoring for NSA data.