Grits for Breakfast brings us a fascinating piece in the Houston Chronicle which pits the police unions against Harris County DA Pat Lykos over a recent policy change reducing the charge for crack pipe residue.
Grits notes that the climate has shifted enough away from uncritical all-out drug war that the police unions are getting push-back from judges, DAs and the public in their choice to attack this policy.
A man is stopped by a Houston police officer for riding his bicycle in the middle of the night without a headlight. He is patted down, and the officer finds a grungy glass pipe with the sooty residue of crack cocaine. The bicyclist does not have any other drugs and is not implicated in any other crimes.
Before Jan. 1, 2010, the tiny amount of crack in the pipe, comparable to a half grain of rice, meant the officer could charge the man with felony drug possession and lock him up.
After that day, the officer could only give him a misdemeanor ticket for drug paraphernalia and send him on his way – an administrative change at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office that infuriates Houston police.
The policy change, of course, makes a whole lot of sense – why waste a whole lot of court resources on such a low-level offense? The fact that the police are infuriated also, unfortunately is not a surprise. The absurdity of the police union position got even more blatant:
“These residue cases are instrumental in putting people behind bars – people who commit burglary of a motor vehicle, burglary of a habitation, aggravated robberies, strong arm robberies and they steal your cars,” said Eric Batton, vice president of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization. “These individuals do that to subsidize their drug addiction, so why wouldn’t you put them behind bars with trace cases?”
Um, let’s see if I can explain this. You’re the police. If someone steals a car, you arrest them and charge them with stealing a car. That may require some investigative work. You don’t just stick everybody that uses crack in jail for a few days and hope that stops car theft.
“The police aren’t really interested in arresting these people because they are in possession of residue, they’re interested in arresting them to achieve a different purpose,” said Geoffrey Corn, a professor at South Texas College of Law. “But the DA has an obligation to prosecute crime, not people. You don’t target people, you target crime.” He said the argument by police is understandable, but it disregards the presumption of innocence.
“It’s problematic to endorse a concept that is, effectively, preventive arrest,” Corn said.
It’s the same idea behind police unions wanting to keep marijuana illegal. In addition to how lucrative it is for them, of course, it gives police an excuse to search people and arrest people they don’t like or that they think are probably criminals, using the law to target people, rather than solving crime.