When the helicopter made a pass over Allison Osborne's home, it was so low that she could see one of the officers had dark hair and a mustache. She could also see an officer make "obscene gestures at my 7-year-old daughter who was standing on the ladder watching." A helicopter intrusion into one's living space, Osborne said in a court affidavit, "is terrifying. It feels like you're in Vietnam (being part of) the things you saw on television."
John Reilly actually was in Vietnam, serving as an Army helicopter crew member. When two choppers buzzed his home in Northern California not long ago, he felt, first of all, that "they were being operated in an extremely unsafe manner" and, second, "they appeared to be using tactics similar to tose I observed used in Vietnam to terrorize the populace."
The helicopters in question are part of California's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), which is supervised and administered by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. CAMP's pilots inspect 37 California counties to locate rural marijuana gardens. When a crop is spotted, agents move in to destroy the weed. The operation is two years old and has already destroyed hundreds of thousands of pounds of cannabis valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The one problem with CAMP is that its agents and supervisors seem to believe that the war against marijuana is of such overriding importance as to justify suspension of the Bill of Rights in the rural areas under suspicion.
After hearing witnesses in a suit against CAMP, Judge Robert Aguilar of the Northern District of California indicated there was substance to such charges against CAMP as "warrantless searches and seizures . . . and sustained low-altitude helicopter activity resulting in repeated invasions of privacy, emotional distress, property damage, disrupted schooling and work, and general danger to the public."
In some, he said, the claim is that CAMP, "out of control," has "turned its areas of operations into 'war zones.' In a not untypical civilian war story, Sigurd Anderson alleged "that CAMP agents took his entire water pumping system, wrenches and gas tanks and chopped a water hose. No warrant or receipt was left."
The judge, after examining CAMP's policy instructions to its own personnel, concluded that CAMP forces are given "virtually unbridled discretion to enter and search private property anywhere in the vicinity of an eradication raid, and to seize personal property and detain innocent citizens without probable cause or even reasonable suspicion of any criminal activity.
"This CAMP policy," the federal jurist wrote with some feeling, "would seem to epitomize the very practices that the Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent."
Judge Aguilar has issued a preliminary injunction against the Drug Enforcement Administration, and it has been sustained, with only minor modifications, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
These are the new rules for bringing CAMP under the Constitution of the United States. Except for open fields, a warrant based on probable cause is necessary any time the CAMP boys enter private property in any manner, including from above. And there are to be no more intentional helicopter flights under 500 feet over homes, vehicles and people.
When Donald Goldberg of Jack Anderson's staff wrote about the judicial leashing of CAMP, John K. Van de Kamp, California's attorney general, complained. After citing the accomplishments of CAMP -- in eradicated marijuana and seized suspects -- the attorney general points out that all this had been made possible "through the joint efforts of 91 federal, state and local agencies." This concourse of cops has, moreover, shown "foreign drug-producing countries that the U.S. is serious about eliminating drugs produced here."
As a bonus, however, Judge Aguilar's action has also shown those foreign nations that in this country, official gunslingers, on the ground or in the air, are not beyond the law, no matter how serious their missions are.
But the attorney general of California insists that the pilots of the privately leased helicopters in the CAMP operation -- who usually have no prior law-enforcement experience -- "performed professionally and responsibly throughout the program."
When Allison Osborne's 12-year-old daughter came home from school one day with a friend, CAMP helicopters chased them, frightening the girls into the bushes and going after them again when they came out. "They saw guns," Allison Osborne says, "and thought they were going to be shot."