Those two recent stories in the Times about the deadly potential of drug raids–and, at least tacitly, noting the craziness of drug enforcement policies over the last many decades–brought me back to a federal lawsuit I had peripheral involvement with back when I worked for civil rights lawyers.
The details of the that case, Rivera v United States of America, etched a firm opinion into my brain of the pointlessness of America’s billion dollar anti-drug mania and the army it assembles to assault human beings in a highly select population, i.e., not me.
About my billion dollar remark: I once went into the federal government web site to see if I could get an idea of how many dollars the DEA blew through every year in the pursuit of…well, whatever they envision they’re pursuing. It was over $2 billion a year.
It’s high time to get rid of the DEA, fine-tune the legalization and sales of drugs and treat addiction as disease, not crime.
This particular drug raid took place in Yonkers, New York, a suburb of the city. The complaint was filed by the lawyer I worked for, John D.B. Lewis, in the federal Southern District court. The judge on the initial complaint was Michael Mukasey, whose dismissal of the case forced John to appeal it to the higher federal court, the Second Circuit.
The Second Circuit partially overturned Mukasey’s decision and John was able to negotiate a moderately satisfactory settlement on behalf of our clients.
That’s when I learned a number of things. First, I would forever growl when I saw the name “Mukasey”–who, by the way, was one of Rudy Giuliani’s besties and in fact married him to his third wife, Judy. You know, that was the wife Rudy was hanging with before he announced his separation from Donna Hannover, his second wife, at a news conference. Which he assembled before he told Donna that he was separating. (She heard it as we all did, on the nightly news.) Ah, that Rudy, always a classy guy but it’d be inapposite to bring up his messing around and bragging about the FBI/Hillary Clinton investigation right now so…)
Second, my sense of justice, a utopian heart-centered thing, did not necessarily match justice as it emerges from a legal case. Barriers spring up, in the form of laws and precedence. (And judge’s prejudices.)
Third, when after a bad decision in a high profile case, you hear the attorney who lost saying “We will appeal!” it doesn’t necessarily mean much. One doesn’t just “appeal” because one is unhappy with a verdict. There have to be specific legal mistakes made, usually by the judge, before an appeal will move forward.
And fourth, even when an appeal does move forward, the percentage of cases in federal court that actually succeed in an appeal–by succeed I mean the higher court overturns at least part of the lower court judge’s decision, and/or sends the case back to the original judge for reconsideration, i.e., a different verdict–is miniscule. In the early ’90s, if I remember correctly, the federal court appeal success rate was around 11 percent.
Anyway, back to..Portrait of a Classic Drug Raid:
One very early morning back in the 1990’s, a number of apartments in a middle-class coop in a New York suburb were raided by a combination of Drug Enforcement Agents and New York City narcs, front line troops in the “War on Drugs.” (Remember the “War on Drugs?” That was the “War” that preceded the “War on Terror.”)
This high-powered task force was acting on info received from a C.I. (confidential informant), a small-time drug dealer they had arrested a while ago and turned into an employee.
The C.I.’s job, for which he was paid around $30,000 a year (our taxes at work), was to scope out and inform on big-time drug dealers. This C.I. had been collecting his salary for a while but not making his target numbers. He had a vital reason: if he actually did inform on big-timer dealers, they’d kill him. So to keep his salary flowing while remaining alive enough to spend it, the C.I. decided to turn in what he swore in an affidavit were some big time drug dealers who operated out of specifically designated apartments in that building. He was lying.
It must have been quite a sight, all these fierce drug warriors dressed in vests with their employers’ names in big letters across the breast, carrying battering rams and heavy weaponry, moving like ghostly pre-dawn avengers outside the building.
The people whose doors the task force battered in were naturally terrified as armed strangers burst into their apartments–none of the invaders identified himself as a cop.
Not one of the apartment owners was a drug dealer.
One young woman, who worked for New York’s Environmental Protection Agency, was stripped and body searched.
Another, a young mother, an ER nurse, was up early to care for her new baby. Her husband had already gone to work as a Correction Department guard at New York’s huge fortress prison, Riker’s Island. Had he been home when a bunch of armed people crashed into his apartment, he certainly would have grabbed and fired his licensed gun. And the intrepid War on Drugsters would certainly have returned fire.
Two other victims of the raid, an elderly couple, had retired from successful blue-collar work lives. One of them had chronic heart problems.
These people became John’s clients and filed a lawsuit for every solid reason you can think of. Years later, after many judicial roadblocks, they got a settlement but not a very large one. Our clients never got what they all really wanted: an apology.
They were lucky, in a way. They lived.