Judge Questions Police Methods

Jim Finnel

Fallen Cannabis Warrior & Ex News Moderator
It was a routine misdemeanor possession-of-marijuana case. But County Court Judge Barry Cohen rendered anything but a routine verdict last week, questioning whether the national war on drugs is effective, and whether investigating minor motor vehicle violations is a good use of officers assigned to the Palm Beach County Violent Crimes Task Force.

The judge, in his written not-guilty verdict, also raised the question of whether the drug war has led to an increasing perception among blacks that they can be stopped in their vehicles for merely "driving while black." The case involved a longtime Palm Beach International Airport skycap in whose car marijuana was found when he was stopped for a minor equipment violation.

"My written verdict was intended only to stimulate a civilized dialogue as to the collateral consequences of the War on Drugs," Cohen said by e-mail.

He succeeded. State Attorney Barry Krischer wrote a lengthy e-mail response to Cohen's order, saying he was "bewildered" by it.

Krischer noted that the multi-agency task force, revived more than a year ago, is engaged in a battle against street gangs that kill to protect their drug trade. "Any effort to make the gang members more afraid of law enforcement than killing each other and innocent bystanders will by necessity be aggressive," he wrote to Cohen.

Since law enforcement officers began late-night and early-morning street patrols, "the level of gun violence in our county has dropped markedly," Krischer wrote to Cohen.

What prompted the exchange was the non-jury misdemeanor trial of Bertram Williams, 37, of West Palm Beach on April 19.

Williams was stopped around 1 a.m. by two sheriff's deputies, who Cohen said were assigned to the violent crimes task force, as Williams drove a 1993 Plymouth on Australian Avenue in January. The ostensible reason: The tag light on his car wasn't working.

But the deputies frisked Williams for weapons, and finding none, got his consent to search his car. They found 38 marijuana butts and 2.7 grams of pot in the car.

Williams testified at trial that he doesn't smoke, drink or do drugs. "The court believes it is reasonable to believe the marijuana butts belonged to and had been smoked by defendant's brother, who routinely drove the vehicle," Cohen wrote in his verdict.

He also pointedly noted that pot continues to account for a significant piece of the drug war, while a 1997 survey reported that 71 million Americans had used marijuana at least once in their lives. He added that "it was former Attorney General John Ashcroft in the post-911 era who proudly announced the success of 'Operation Pipe Dream,' a nationwide roundup of bong and roach clip manufacturers."

Cohen said he's concerned about the threat of drugs to society, especially children. He's just not convinced the current methods of combating them are the answer.

The judge called the deputies in the Williams case well-intentioned. "However, the spectacle of two members of the Violent Crimes Task Force investigating a tag light violation warrants some scrutiny by our citizenry," he wrote.

In fact, the deputies more likely were part of Operation Gangbusters, another multi-agency group of about 80 officers that was formed in January and works in sync with the task force, sheriff's spokesman Paul Miller said.

While the traffic stop of Williams was legal, "this judge, for 16 years, in his courtroom has been haunted by the image of African-American motorists being detained by police officers for minor equipment violations," Cohen wrote. While most law enforcement officers are color-blind on the job, "increasing numbers of African Americans have come to believe that 'Driving While Black' is an offense for which they can be stopped," he wrote. Bertram Williams is black.

"People have been stopped from all different types of backgrounds," Miller said. "We don't do any racial profiles."

Krischer didn't address the race issue, but wrote: "In order to get the guns and drugs off the street, law enforcement must aggressively enforce the traffic laws during the early morning hours when these shootings occur."

Miller agreed, although he had no data on gang-related arrests made or weapons seized specifically as a result of traffic stops. He said that other than a gang-related triple homicide in Lake Worth, gang violence has diminished.

"It's been tremendously successful," Miller said. "They've been making arrests, finding drugs, guns. We've taken a lot of weapons off the street. The gang members realize we're out there. It sends a strong message to the people we want to get a message to."

Cohen is a veteran of 16 years on the bench who has spoken out before. He wrote a commentary in The Palm Beach Post in December 2005 decrying bigotry and intolerance.

In the most recent poll of local lawyers, Cohen received the highest marks of any county court judge in knowledge of the law and diligence.

He said in an e-mail that "none of us should believe there is a clear and simple solution to these problems or that tension. If there was, both the state attorney and I would already be unemployed, and there would be no necessity for this dialogue."

News Hawk- User 420 MAGAZINE ® - Medical Marijuana Publication & Social Networking
Source: The Palm Beach Post
Author: Larry Keller
Contact: larry_keller@pbpost.com
Copyright: 2007, The Palm Beach Post
Website: Judge questions police methods, effectiveness of drug war


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Of course, the idea that legalizing drugs would cut down on gang violence while also not limiting our freedoms is lost on most of the people in this country.
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