A couple in Owego, New York was recently wrongly targeted by local police, who had apparently mistaken them for some pretty big time drug distributers. From local TV news outlet WNBF:
Steven Dunlap says he was pulled over by police while he was on his way to meet some friends for pizza. He says they took him into custody at gunpoint.
A short time later, Cindy Dunlap received a call from one of her husband’s friends letting her know he hadn’t arrived.
Fearing Steve had been in a crash, Cindy rushed to retrace his likely route. Then she also was pulled over and taken into custody.
When police transported Cindy back to her home, they told her they had warrants to search the place. She pleaded with them not to use the battering ram they brought with them.
Investigators entered the couple’s home through the unlocked front door. They thoroughly search the house and its outbuildings.
The Dunlap family dog, Lily, remained inside, curling up in her tiny bed while police looked for evidence of illegal activity.
What they found were fabrics and equipment used in Cindy’s long-established quilting business.
Search warrants signed by Broome County and Tioga County judges less than 24 hours before the raid indicated investigators were looking for methamphetamine, crack cocaine and firearms, among other things.
I’m sure the experience was traumatizing for the Dunlaps, and I don’t mean to undermine what they endured. Before going further, I’d also add that I don’t think the police should be serving search warrants for consensual crimes at all, because I don’t think consensual activities should be crimes. I’d also obviously prefer that police not make mistakes when it comes to arresting people and searching their homes.
That said, in much of the country, this could have been a lot worse. The WBNF headline for this story is “Tioga Terror.” The subhead is, “Police Raid Home, Find Nothing.” But this wasn’t really a raid. In fact, if the police must serve search warrants on suspected drug offenders, this is exactly the way to do it. They pulled Mr. Dunlap over as he was leaving his home, they didn’t rush the home in the middle of the night. They entered through an unlocked door, not with a battering ram. I’m sure it was traumatizing for the Dunlaps to be falsely arrested and held at gunpoint, but that’s quite a bit better than being woken up with a flash grenade, thrown to the ground, and stepped on, all with a gun to the back of the head. And the Dunlaps’ dog is alive to bark another day.
Again, this isn’t to diminish the undoubtably scary experience of getting falsely arrested. There is the larger problem of how and why the local cops mistook a quilting business with a meth lab. And exactly how much scrutiny local judges and prosecutors could possibly be giving these warrants to have signed off on such an egregious mistake. The lack of an apology is also troubling (though not uncommon).
But because drug crimes take no direct victims, there’s no one to report to police that a crime has been committed. Therefore, the police have to rely on informants and undercover officers. This means that drug policing will necessarily be done with dirty information, which means there will always be mistakes. It’s just the nature of business. When the cops get the wrong house or target the wrong suspects, we chastise them for unnecessarily terrorizing innocence. Why not do a surround and call-out? Or better yet, why not just wait until the suspect leaves the house, then pull him over, and then search the house without the commando tactics?
That’s exactly what the police did here. No innocents were shot. No cops were shot. No drug offenders were shot. Perhaps I’m engaging in what the previous president called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” here, but if we must have a drug war, let’s at least minimize the collateral damage. This is the correct way to make a drug war mistake. It could have been a lot worse. Ask the family of David Hooks. Or Jason Westcott. Or Derek Cruice. Or Bounkham Phonesavah. Or Andrew Cornish.