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The Antwan Smith Story

By Paul Bischke, Drug Policy Reform Group of Minnesota

Videotape, female voice-over: "Middleville Police today rounded up a drug ring of 4 conspirators who have allegedly operated behind this phony front business, Antwan's Southern Auto Parts, on the city's west side. Police seized 3 pounds of cocaine and 4 pounds of marijuana having a total street value of $1.6 million. According to Police Sgt. Andrew Murray, "These guys were shipping more than rust-free car fenders from Texas." Murray indicated that the early-morning raid might have broken connections with a Mexican drug source. Antwan Smith, 27, of 327 Oak Street, owns the business that operates from a large garage behind his rented duplex apartment. Smith's uncle, Roger Smith, 53, his cousin Darryl Smith, 31, and Tanisha Jones, 29, all of Middleville, were also arrested in the sweep. Police also seized nearly $3500 in cash. Melvin Roosevelt of Metro Progress, which advocates for inner-city neighborhoods, applauded the police action. Police Chief Eric Ryan agreed: "Getting drugs off our streets is a number-one priority." For Channel 8, this is Eyewitness News reporter Colleen Cuddles."

This story might air on any local evening news broadcast from Miami to Seattle. It's pre-written. The canned pattern is a sure winner for Channel 8: drama, intrigue, heroism, and villainy. The camera shots are vivid though familiar: the police cruiser parked by a shabby house; a detective poring over suitcases, scales, and baggies in the shady garage out back; the half-hidden faces of suspects; the talking heads of police and neighborhood boosters; and appropriate scowls from the Eyewitness reporter.

But there's more to this story. The events before and after raids like that on 327 Oak Street have caught the attention of the folks who report on human rights abuses around the world, Amnesty International. Channel 8 Reporter Colleen Cuddles isn't assigned to follow up on the Antwan Smith raid. She can't imagine human rights abuses were involved. Her editor can't imagine airing stories that cause Middleville police to look bad, or Middleville viewers to change channels.

Yet the before and after scenes of the Antwan Smith raid worry not just Amnesty International, but also such liberals as the ACLU President Ira Glasser and such conservatives as Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde. Here's why.

The boo-boo

Before the raid on 3-2-7 Oak Street, a little mistake happened. Two impatient backup officers got a smeared copy of the raid plan and went to 8-2-7 Oak Street instead. Retirees Tom and Elsie Anderson were scared to death when their door was kicked in by two screaming men in black. Their grandson who had grabbed a handgun to defend them was lucky enough to drop it before being shot. Police apology: brief. Police compensation for the $1,200 of damage to the Anderson's entryway: zero. The officer explained sternly that they'd been lenient in not charging the grandson for his unlicensed handling of Tom Anderson's handgun or for interfering with police business. The Andersons weren't going to push their luck. Coincidentally or not, Elsie Anderson's heart palpitations flared up for two months after the raid.

The fleecing

The conspirators were, of course, those who worked with Antwan Smith in his drug-selling operation, right? Yes and no. Antwan's landlord and uncle, Roger Smith, who knew but pretended not to know about the drug business, roughly fits the common-sense definition of a conspirator. Antwan's girlfriend, Tanisha Jones, and Antwan's cousin Daryll Smith don't fit the common-sense definition.

Cousin Darryl thought Antwan's business was shady; so he never helped. He just had the misfortune of being Antwan's breakfast guest on the day of the raid. Police seized his car and arrested him for "frequenting a disorderly household." To be fair to police, Darryl might have gotten it back. But the $3,000 in up-front legal fees didn't seem worth risking to regain the $5,500 car six months later. He needed wheels to commute to work every day. $250 from Darryl's wallet was part of the $3,500 cash seized by police. Regaining that money was essentially impossible since police demand a $500 application fee to claim seized goods. In the end, Darryl decided not to fight seizure for a different reason altogether: police told him that, if he challenged the seizure, they would prosecute on the 'disorderly household' charge. Darryl is in good company. 80% of asset-seizure 'victims' are never charged with a crime; 90% of civil asset seizures are never challenged.

To escape jail time, Antwan's uncle Roger Smith turned in Terry Locelli, Antwan's biggest street seller, who will do time. Roger Smith lost his mostly-paid-for duplex to forfeiture. It's just as well; both apartment's were so torn apart in the police raid that the place was unrecognizable­­walls, floors, ceilings, all smashed in an ostensible "contraband search." As part of his 3-year probation plan, Roger's garnished wages will pay off the mortgage on the house he'll never own.

The sucker

Tanisha Jones was a dupe. She didn't have a clue that Antwan was selling drugs. After two bad relationships, she wanted to believe the best. She let Antwan make "business calls" from her guestroom telephone, which was eventually bugged by police. She told Jose Garcia of Houston, Texas where to call Antwan when he was making his rounds. She thought she was putting a junkyard wholesaler in touch with a local junk-dealer (Antwan) who was visiting small mechanics. It didn't matter. She didn't know enough about the operation to inform on anyone. Answering the phone was enough to get her a 5-year mandatory prison sentence on federal conspiracy charges.

The jerk

Antwan Smith himself didn't fare so badly. After informing on Jose Garcia, his 10-year sentence was reduced to 18 months. The inter-state connection allowed Middleville police to "federalize" the case, which got them a share of assets seized from a subsequent raid in Texas, as well.

At other times & places

Other repercussions were less direct, less immediate, and less obvious.

On the evening after the raid, Middleville police officer Dennis Gray slipped into the property locker with a bag of flour. He took one pound of cocaine out of the three-pound bag, replaced the missing white powder with flour, mixed and weighed it quickly, and re-locked the room. He had certain contacts that he never discussed. Perhaps they were Antwan Smith's competitors.

Every day on Interstate highways from California to Florida, young men named Garcia (no relatives of our Jose) are stopped by police and searched for drugs. They fit the government's official profile for drug criminals: young and Latino.

Within weeks of the raid, one of Terry Locelli's drug-using customers began thinking the risk of dealing with cocaine peddlers wasn't worth it. With a simple recipe, he found he could make methamphetamine himself in the privacy of his father's Lake Boonie cabin. He began making it on weekends that he'd scheduled for boating, hunting, and ice fishing. He sold it to a few friends. He dumped the meth sludge in the lake.

Months after the raid, a teenage baby-sitter, whom Middleville police had used as an informant against Antwan Smith, was pushed off her bike and beaten by unknown assailants.

While in prison 200 miles from Middleville, Tanisha Jones, who had severe asthma attacks, was shackled to a cell door for several hours and sexually fondled by a guard. She didn't report the incident. The guard warned that prisoners' medicines sometimes got mysteriously 'lost' and that he'd hate to see that happen to an asthmatic.

For years after the raid, Tanisha's two children bounced between relatives and foster homes. When Tanisha got out of prison, her son was a bitter 14-year-old in the juvenile justice system for petty crimes.

Blue knights, black ink

It seems that Colleen Cuddles overlooked as much about the crime-fighters as she did about the criminals.

Middleville's Mayor was delighted that Chief Eric Ryan had actually expanded police programs while decreasing reliance on tax dollars. Asset seizure was the key. Although robberies and burglaries in Middleville had increased since drug-enforcement was stressed, the mayor knew political advantage when he saw it. With a wink and a nod, the mayor encouraged Ryan to "keep fighting drugs and protecting our children."

Chief Ryan had the budget to keep his officers up to date. In seminars at Lakeshore University's Drug War Institute, they learned about "using informants," about the "use of seizure as a valuable investigative tool," about "search tactics for concealed contraband" and "conspiracy case development." Seminars on "stress management in drug enforcement" and "police survival tactics in drug enforcement" were for the officers' personal welfare. Lest the drug raids tarnish the department's reputation, police spokesman Sgt. Murray attended public-relations seminars on "protecting your agency against unfavorable publicity," "how to create sound bites," and "how to spin stories to your advantage."

True tales

In Dragnet parlance, 'these stories are true, but the names have been changed.'

Few real drug raids have as many eyebrow-raising events as this hypothetical tale. Yet the Antwan Smith story shows the breadth of issues involved and every detail reflects a true recent story. For example, a young woman confined in a New York prison, Nicole Richardson, was the model for Tanisha Jones's 5-year conspiracy conviction. Regarding informants, a 16-year-old Brea, California boy forced to act as a police informant was killed by the criminals he was spying on. Raids on wrong addresses are common. Raids on correct addresses are often based on false informant tips, as in the Sallisaw, Arkansas raid where Patricia Eymer was shot in her home by a police officer while she was holding her 4-year-old child. Sexual abuse of prisoners by guards was exposed in a November 1998 NBC News Dateline report on prisons in Albion, New York and Osceola, Florida alongside violent retribution against whistleblowers in a Dublin, California prison.

Every person present at a drug raid is in mortal danger. Many innocent or trivially guilty people are killed. To protect their lives and sanity, police wear body armor and attend seminars on stress and survival. The seminar offerings presented earlier come from actual courses offered at a special division of Northwestern University in Chicago. Noticeably absent from the curriculum are courses on protecting the lives and civil liberties of civilians in drug raids.

Most of this story is about police policy, not maverick deviance. No-knock raids, overwhelming force, conspiracy charges, and asset seizure on a guilty-till-proven-innocent basis have become staples of modern American police work.

Congressman Henry Hyde's attempts to curb forfeiture abuse have met fierce resistance from the Clinton administration. In fact, Attorney General Janet Reno has recommended expanded use of civil forfeiture, practices that invite police to work on a commission basis. Civil asset forfeiture is a multi-billion-dollar government enterprise. In many cases, it is nothing short of state-sponsored extortion. Due to the complex logistics of storage, transport, value sharing, and auctioning, seized assets are often poorly managed.

Drug courier profiles affect more than Latinos. The American Civil Liberties Union has recently decried police routinely stopping young African-American men whose only 'offense' is "driving while black." Yet, if their actions are any indication, black civic groups don't seem to care much about Drug War abuses.

See no evil

The U.S. Congress's attitude toward these abuses has been either (a) they should be continued and not acknowledged as abuses, or (b) they should be expanded and not acknowledged as abuses. The Congressional response can be summarized as follows:

  • Mandatory sentences: Let them continue
  • Wire taps: Make them easier
  • Drug courier profiles: What racism?
  • Conspiracy laws: No comment
  • Prison rape and abuse: No comment

Police departments, too, have failed to change policies on no-knock raids, deadly force, and use of informants. Rambo reigns and people die-police and civilians alike.

The Antwan Smith story is a bit much for Eyewitness News. It's not very heroic. It can't all be blamed on drugs. And it doesn't seem to be "saving the children." Maybe Colleen Cuddles is just a sucker for "sound bites" from men in uniform.

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