Give ‘Em Enough Rope

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When I was growing up, all kinds of kids got picked on.  Middle school was a hotbed of harassment.  Fat kids.  Skinny kids.  Freckles.  Any last names that rhymed with a dirty word.  Anything, really.  Back in the day there were no fancy terms for it, bullying just existed without a label.

Cops can be bullies as well, and no where is this more evident than their treatment of the drug addicted masses.

Public Service Announcement: if you have a disease that causes your brain to crave a particular chemical–law enforcement will transform this addiction into a prison sentence.   Just close your eyes, and imagine the addicted kids in the movie “Trainspotting.”  There wasn’t much these kids wouldn’t do to get their next fix, and the cops know it.

One of my favorite anti-drug commercials goes something like this.  Picture a public toilet seat.  Now, it won’t be too much of a stretch to imagine that toilet seat has not been cleaned in months.  It hasn’t been flushed in months.  The tag line reads “No One Thinks They Will Lose Their Virginity Here.  Meth Will Change That.” (the Montana Meth Project has some pretty compelling ads, FYI)

Yes, addiction will cause you to do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.   So, leave it to our government to take full advantage of these folks who are down on their luck.  Our case for today examines just how far the police can go.  In State v. Johnson, the defendant was convicted of six felony drug deals which scored him several years in  prison. 2017 Fla.App.LEXIS 11687 (Fla. 2d DCA 2017).   We’re going to explore whether or not Johnson can be sentenced on the full weight of these six transactions, under suspicious police circumstances.

What happened to Johnson happens to many drug addicts–they sell drugs to support their habit.  This isn’t a case of “Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece, jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash,”  this is just good old fashioned addiction (and the tiny drug sales that support it).

Here’s what happened.  Johnson sold $40 worth of drugs to a confidential informant.  This first $40 sale would have gotten Johnson a minimum prison sentence of 31 months.  Yes, drug dealing can send you to prison, no surprises here.  This transaction was video taped, hence it was easy to prove.

But the police decided not to arrest Johnson after the first video taped transaction.  They knew they had an addict on their hands, and addicts will do just about anything to support their habit.  Why not rack up some more crimes against this addict?  Hey, the drug dealer conviction stats will make the public feel safer, right?

So, the police did some more deals.  The next deal was only $60.  And the next was $20.  Yes, a whopping twenty dollars.  The next was $60, again.  Not a whole lot of drugs are being moved here, just a couple hundred dollars, but a whole lot of your tax payer dollars are heading to the prison system when all is said and done.

I know what you’re thinking: If a drug dealer is such a threat to society, shouldn’t the police arrest the person after their first deal?  Would we let a terrorist, who we know blew up a building, would we let him go just to see what happens next?  (I’m a big fan of Homeland, and Carrie has done just that on a few occasions, so maybe this strategy is more legitimate than I give it credit for?).

Most importantly, did law enforcement have a legitimate reason for continuing to purchase drugs from Johnson?

The defense accused law enforcement of sentence manipulation.  If the judge buys into this theory, Johnson will be entitled to a lower sentence than would be allowed under normal circumstances.  Naturally, no officer would confess to sentencing manipulation, and these officers denied, denied, denied.  The officers testified that these “repeated transactions were primarily to obtain good audio and video recordings of Johnson’s criminal conduct, in order to make a strong case against Johnson, and to gain information on other mid-level drug dealers.”  Really?  Twenty dollar weed sales constitute mid-level drug dealers?  What constitutes a low-level drug dealer?  Can’t we just call this what it is–taking advantage of a drug addict?

The court didn’t buy the officer’s testimony that they needed good video recordings–as they had such after the first transaction!  Hum.  What about the excuse that they wanted to “gain information on other mid-level drug dealers?”  Again, total BS.

Most telling was the fact that “the officer admitted that he knew Johnson was simply an addict and not a mid-level drug dealer.” Id. [emphasis added]  Yes, your tax payer dollars hard at work.  They admitted two key facts that we knew the whole time.  Johnson wasn’t a mid-level drug dealer.  Johnson was an addict.

So, what do we call what happened here?   A waste of tax payer dollars?  Sure.  But, what’s the legal term?

Sentence manipulation.  This happens when there exists no legitimate reason for continuing to purchase drugs, other than to increase the sentence down the road.   In cases of sentence manipulation, the judge is permitted to give a lighter sentence than would otherwise be legal (we call this a downward departure).  The Johnson court found that these officers committed sentence manipulation and as such, Johnson was entitled to a lighter sentence.

Look, we all understand that drugs are bad.  Just check out the Montana Meth Project ads in case you have any doubts.  But, we should be caring for addicts, not trying to turn them into prison bound criminals.  The police are our first line of defense in trying to sort this issue out at the street level, but lately our cops have been more concerned with racking up felony arrests than in helping their fellow citizens.  Sad, really.