How Sandwich Bags Can Land You In Jail (If You Have the Wrong Local Police Force)

How Sandwich Bags Can Land You In Jail (If You Have the Wrong Local Police Force)

Marijuana legalization’s surge in public support and the warm embrace with which elected officials — including the most conservative members of Congress — are greeting broader drug-policy reform has done little to lessen the peril facing users of cannabis and other recreational drugs across the United States.

The sad case of Patrick Beadle, the Portland, Oregon resident sentenced to eight years in prison for driving through Mississippi with medical marijuana he obtained legally, illustrates how far most places have to go on cannabis.

But this more general danger — from agents of the state, wielding lethal force — also extends to people who don’t use recreational drugs.

In case you were in need of an illustration, please consider the case of the sandwich bags, digital scale, and mystery “paperwork” that Little Rock police seized at Roderick Talley’s apartment.

Talley is a 31-year-old barber. As The Washington Post’s Radley Balko described in a recent column, Talley was sleeping on the couch of his Little Rock apartment when he was awakened by a deafening roar — and the door of his apartment itself, blown off its hinges and on top of him. In through the open portal swarmed four SWAT officers in full tactical gear, fingers on the trigger of their assault weapons, the weapons pointed square at Talley.

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The cops were there, they wrote in an affidavit justifying a search warrant approved by a judge prior to this no-knock raid, to look for the cocaine Talley had allegedly been selling, according to the confidential police informant whose anonymous — and, evidently, wholly unreliable — tip triggered the raid.

But as Balko writes, the subsequent search of Talley’s apartment and car turned up exactly zero cocaine. They did find a “green leafy substance” that police claimed was marijuana. They also found plastic bags and three digital scales, though Talley claimed to own only one, and it was broken.

Talley was nonetheless put in handcuffs and taken to county jail on suspicion of committing a misdemeanor — possession of marijuana. The bags and the scales were also seized, and accounted for additional charges, along with mystery “paperwork” listed in a post-raid police report. Exactly what that paperwork is, Talley isn’t sure: it’s still in police custody, after prosecutors declined to charge him but reserved the right to file charges later. (Police also boasted to Talley’s distressed and disbelieving neighbors, alarmed by the blast that shook them awake that morning, that they’d “taken out your local drug dealer,” a shock tactic that surely played into Talley’s landlord’s decision to evict him, despite no conviction or even a charge.)

No Knock, No Accountability

To any rational outside observer, what happened to Talley — a no-knock raid, using explosives and assault weapons, all over drugs that weren’t even there, resulting in criminal charges stemming from items found in any typical kitchen — should be absurd and outrageous enough.

To defense attorneys and retired law enforcement, they are much worse. They are violations of the Fourth Amendment that also jeopardize the health and safety of the public.

And yet, they have happened dozens and dozens of times, to dozens and dozens of other people like Talley.

Balko reviewed more than 100 “drug busts” conducted by Little Rock police over the past two years, and found that the majority of them turned up absolutely nothing — no drugs, and none of the marked police money given to informants to buy it.

“In 35 of the 105 no-knock raids,” Balko reported, “the police only had probable cause to search for marijuana. In eight others, they found only marijuana despite obtaining a search warrant for harder drugs.”

Eighty-four of the suspects who were targeted in the 105 raids are black. The city is 42 percent black and 46 percent white. And 101 of the raids were “no-knock raids.” In 20 of the raids, police found nothing. In many more, police found “residue,” or “powder,” or a “leafy substance,” or “pills” or a “pill bottle” — in other words, they found something, just not what they swore under oath to a judge they would find.

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Rather than admit the obvious — the raid was a dangerous and costly failure — police charge the recipients of these botched raids with misdemeanor crimes. Sometimes, the occupants of the raided homes are evicted, or charged by their landlords for the damage caused by police. And then they do it again — and again and again.

Another individual, a registered legal gun owner, had his weapon seized, was charged for it, and was evicted from his apartment. “None had received an apology, compensation or an offer to repair the door,” Balko writes.

The problem — for police — is that they also appeared to have lied. Repeatedly, and increasingly. Police told a judge that they’d had an informant buy cocaine from Talley, and that they’d received a positive ID from their informant after casing Talley’s apartment. We know that is all untrue, because Talley set up a video security system outside his apartment following a few thefts (which were never solved by police). And that video footage contradicts the account to which police swore in their affidavit signed off by a judge. To date, that has not resulted in any punishment for the police or compensation for Talley, who waged a one-man campaign for many months, obtaining public records and using social media to spread the news of his case.

How many people like Talley are set up without the exculpatory power of a home security system? In how many other cities is there a SWAT team happy to stage raids suitable for cartel kingpins for a few scraps of weed? The answers are obvious and depressing, and illustrate the broader truth: For all the progress made in America, we’re still at the beginning.