The search warrant is a frequently deployed weapon in the Columbia Police Department’s war on drugs. Since January 2003, officers have searched 120 residences using a tool that, according to one police commander, is designed to target people who sell narcotics.
Yet police rarely find enough evidence during those searches to make the case for drug dealing. Court records say that in 2003, police searched 84 residences and found evidence of drug distribution in 12 of them; six of those cases were eventually reduced to possession charges. Through this April, police have exercised 36 search warrants and have netted seven distribution charges.
Of the 120 search warrants served in the past 16 months, distribution charges have held up in court against 13 suspects. Cases involving 45 of the 120 search warrants have been sealed. Those cases are considered confidential, according to the Boone County circuit clerk’s office, because charges were never filed or the defendants pleaded guilty to a charge they weren’t originally charged with.
Capt. Mike Martin, investigative commander for the police department, said the number of suspects charged with distribution might be low because they often sell all their drugs before the police arrive to search.
“It’s a very quick-selling product,” he said. He said they also might flush drugs down their toilets.
Police have exercised the most search warrants, 72, in low-income neighborhoods west of Providence Road and north of Business Loop 70. Some residents from this area have expressed anger at police in recent months. A week ago, at a town hall meeting sponsored by First Ward City Councilwoman Almeta Crayton, residents accused police of racial profiling. Crayton said police actions, including an increasing number of juvenile arrests, suggests “someone at the top” is targeting the area as a center of drug activity.
“It’s easy to attack somebody over here,” she said. “It looks good on paper.”
The department, which did not send a representative to Crayton’s meeting, has not addressed the racial profiling charge by residents. Last year, police arrested 125 people on suspicion of selling or manufacturing drugs, up from 67 in 2002, according to the department records. Arrests for suspected drug possession increased, as well, to 1,070 from 956 in 2002. Officers defend the use of search warrants as an important tactic to combat drugs. “Courts understand that we do this,” said Capt. Mike Martin, investigative commander for the police department. “This is an acceptable practice throughout the U.S.”
Obtaining a warrant
Officers must establish probable cause before a judge to secure a search warrant. Officers conduct surveillance of residences, looking for telltale signs of drug dealing, such as heavy foot or vehicular traffic. They also look through residents’ trash for incriminating evidence after it is placed curbside for pickup.
But mostly they rely on confidential informants or cooperative citizens. The relationship between officers and informants develops from street contacts, Martin said. Many informants have a history of drug offenses, he said, and are often facing drug charges themselves. Cooperative citizens, he said, are people with no pending charges who voluntarily assist the police department. Informants are often rewarded for cooperating with police. Martin said they are offered an opportunity to plead to a lesser charge or a reduced sentence. Unlike informants, cooperative citizens are paid, Martin said.
“They know where drug activity occurs,” Martin said of both informants and cooperative citizens. “They can lead us there.”
Informants helped police establish probable cause for 52 search warrants last year. Only three of those cases that yielded drug distribution charges held up in court.
Making a legal case that someone had the intent to sell drugs is difficult, said Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Keith Bail. Such evidence might include drugs packaged individually and large amounts of cash, typically more than $1,000, Bail said. But because that type of evidence is open to interpretation, many cases result in a reduction of charges for a lack of evidence that the person intended to sell, he said.
Stephen Wyse, a local criminal defense lawyer who was an undercover narcotics officer for the Army in the mid-1980s, said informants are an important source of information for police. However, holding them accountable for their reliability is difficult when they are not named.
“Sometimes it becomes fiction,” he said. “I’m not happy with unnamed informants as a legitimate method of investigation.”
Neither is Columbia attorney Dan Viets, who said police rely on people who are lured by easy money. Informants often lie, Viets said
“To assume that these people are reliable is making a big assumption,” he said.
Narcotics officers question the reliability of their informants every time, Martin said. Informants must provide names, addresses and physical descriptions of suspects. Police corroborate that information to determine the informant’s reliability, Martin said.
Police often direct informants to buy drugs from suspected dealers. Martin said it’s pretty easy to make a case for drug distribution with “controlled buys” because “you’ve got somebody who just sold someone dope.” Police set up more than three dozen controlled buys of cocaine and marijuana in 2003. The buys were used to establish probable cause for 37 search warrants. Only two of those warrants resulted in charges of drug distribution.
Wyse agreed that police-directed drug buys are a good way to find drug dealers. He said most police do it properly, although the informants should wear recording devices when they make drug buys so that prosecutors don’t have to rely solely on the informant’s account of the transaction.
Viets said controlled drug buys by unnamed informants amount to an agent of the government bribing citizens to break the law. The drug transactions would have never taken place had the police not initiated them, said Viets, who is also opposed to police “knock and talks” — unannounced visits by officers who attempt to search residences without a warrant. Martin defended the tactic as an alternative to time-consuming investigations.
Viets, who argues that prohibition of drugs in general doesn’t work, would like to see an end to the indiscriminate use of search warrants by police.
“It doesn’t do anything to stop drugs from being sold,” he said.
Bishop Lorenzo Lawson, a First Ward activist, wonders the same thing. An overwhelming number of the search warrants exercised by police have resulted in minor possession or drug paraphernalia charges, which typically result in probation. And even most repeat offenders only receive 90-day sentences in the Boone County Jail and return to their neighborhoods with the same demand for drugs, Lawson said.
“These warrants aren’t helping anything,” he said. “They’re just sending people through the court system.”