2: The Lockdown We may think we know how the criminal justice system works. Television is overloaded with fictional dramas about police, crime, and prosecutors—shows such as Law & Order. These fictional dramas, like the evening news, tend to focus on individual stories of crime, victimization, and punishment, and the stories are typically told from the point of view of law enforcement. A charismatic police officer, investigator, or prosecutor struggles with his own demons while heroically trying to solve a horrible crime. He ultimately achieves a personal and moral victory by finding the bad guy and throwing him in jail. That is the made-for-TV version of the criminal justice system. It perpetuates the myth that the primary function of the system is to keep our streets safe and our homes secure by rooting out dangerous criminals and punishing them. These television shows, especially those that romanticize drug-law enforcement, are the modern-day equivalent of the old movies portraying happy slaves, the fictional gloss placed on a brutal system of racialized oppression and control.
Those who have been swept within the criminal justice system know that the way the system actually works bears little resemblance to what happens on television or in movies. Full-blown trials of guilt or innocence rarely occur; many people never even meet with an attorney; witnesses are routinely paid and coerced by the government; police regularly stop and search people for no reason whatsoever; penalties for many crimes are so severe that innocent people plead guilty, accepting plea bargains to avoid harsh mandatory sentences; and children, even as young as fourteen, are sent to adult prisons. Rules of law and procedure, such as "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt" or "probable cause" or "reasonable suspicion," can easily be found in court cases and law-school textbooks but are much harder to find in real life.
In this chapter, we shall see how the system of mass incarceration actually works. Our focus is the War on Drugs. The reason is simple: Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000.1 Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980—an increase of 1,100 percent.2 Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result, more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began.3 Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.
Before we begin our tour of the drug war, it is worthwhile to get a couple of myths out of the way. The first is that the war is aimed at ridding the nation of drug "kingpins" or big-time dealers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of those arrested are not charged with serious offenses. In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of
violence or significant selling activity.4
The second myth is that the drug war is principally concerned with dangerous drugs. Quite to the contrary, arrests for marijuana possession—a drug less harmful than tobacco or alcohol—accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s.5 Despite the fact that most drug arrests are for nonviolent minor offenses, the War on Drugs has ushered in an era of unprecedented punitiveness.
The percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences (rather than dismissal, community service, or probation) has quadrupled, resulting in a prison-building boom the likes of which the world has never seen. In two short decades, between 1980 and 2000, the number of people incarcerated in our nation's prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans—or one in every 31 adults—were behind bars, on probation, or on parole.6
We begin our exploration of the drug war at the point of entry—arrest by the police—and then consider how the system of mass incarceration is structured to reward mass drug arrests and facilitate the conviction and imprisonment of an unprecedented number of Americans, whether guilty or innocent. In subsequent chapters, we will consider how the system specifically targets people of color and then relegates them to a second-class status analogous to Jim Crow. At this point, we simply take stock of the means by which the War on Drugs facilitates the roundup and lockdown of an extraordinary percentage of the U.S. population.
Rules of the Game
Few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the War on Drugs. This may sound like an overstatement, but upon examination it proves accurate. The absence of significant constraints on the exercise of police discretion is a key feature of the drug war's design. It has made the roundup of millions of Americans for nonviolent drug offenses relatively easy.
With only a few exceptions, the Supreme Court has seized every opportunity to facilitate the drug war, primarily by eviscerating Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by the police. The rollback has been so pronounced that some commentators charge that a virtual "drug exception" now exists to the Bill of Rights. Shortly before his death, Justice Thurgood Marshall felt compelled to remind his colleagues that there is, in fact, "no drug exception" written into the text of the Constitution.7
Most Americans do not know what the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution actually says or what it requires of the police. It states, in its entirety:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against
unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.
Courts and scholars agree that the Fourth Amendment governs all searches and seizures by the police and that the amendment was adopted in response to the English practice of conducting arbitrary searches under general warrants to uncover seditious libels. The routine police harassment, arbitrary searches, and widespread police intimidation of those subject to English rule helped to inspire the American Revolution. Not surprisingly, then, preventing arbitrary searches and seizures by the police was deemed by the Founding Fathers an essential element of the U.S. Constitution. Until the War on Drugs, courts had been fairly stringent about enforcing the Fourth Amendment's requirements.
Within a few years after the drug war was declared, however, many legal scholars noted a sharp turn in the Supreme Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. By the close of the Supreme Court's 1990-91 term, it had become clear that a major shift in the relationship between the citizens of this country and the police was underway. Justice Stevens noted the trend in a powerful dissent issued in California v. Acevedo, a case upholding the warrantless search of a bag locked in a motorist's trunk:
In the years [from 1982 to 1991], the Court has heard argument in 30 Fourth Amendment cases involving narcotics. In all but one, the government was the petitioner. All save two involved a search or seizure without a warrant or with a defective warrant. And, in all except three, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the search or seizure. In the meantime, the flow of narcotics cases through the courts has steadily and dramatically increased. No impartial observer could criticize this Court for hindering the progress of the war on drugs. On the contrary, decisions like the one the Court makes today will support the conclusion that this Court has become a loyal foot soldier in the Executive's fight against crime.8
The Fourth Amendment is but one example. Virtually all constitutionally protected civil liberties have been undermined by the drug war. The Court has been busy in recent years approving mandatory drug testing of employees and students, upholding random searches and sweeps of public schools and students, permitting police to obtain search warrants based on an anonymous informant's tip, expanding the government's wiretapping authority, legitimating the use of paid, unidentified informants by police and prosecutors, approving the use of helicopter surveillance of homes without a warrant, and allowing the forfeiture of cash, homes, and other property based on unproven allegations of illegal drug activity.
For our purposes here, we limit our focus to the legal rules crafted by the Supreme Court that grant law enforcement a pecuniary interest in the drug war and make it relatively easy for the police to seize people virtually anywhere—on public streets and sidewalks, on buses, airplanes and trains, or any other public place—and usher them behind bars. These new legal rules have ensured that anyone, virtually anywhere, for any reason, can become a target of drug-law enforcement activity.
Once upon a time, it was generally understood that the police could not stop and search someone without a warrant unless there was probable cause to believe that the individual was engaged in criminal activity. That was a basic Fourth Amendment principle. In Terry v. Ohio , decided in 1968, the Supreme Court modified that understanding, but only modestly, by ruling that if and when a police officer observes unusual conduct by someone the officer reasonably believes to be dangerous and engaged in criminal activity, the officer "is entitled for the protection of himself and others in the area" to conduct a limited search "to discover weapons that might be used against the officer."9
Known as the stop-and-frisk rule, the Terry decision stands for the proposition that, so long as a police officer has "reasonable articulable suspicion" that someone is engaged in criminal activity and dangerous, it is constitutionally permissible to stop, question, and frisk him or her—even in the absence of probable cause.
Justice Douglas dissented in Terry on the grounds that "grant[ing] police greater power than a magistrate [judge] is to take a long step down the totalitarian path."10 He objected to the notion that police should be free to conduct warrantless searches whenever they suspect someone is a criminal, believing that dispensing with the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement risked opening the door to the same abuses that gave rise to the American Revolution. His voice was a lonely one. Most commentators at the time agreed that affording police the power and discretion to protect themselves during an encounter with someone they believed to be a dangerous criminal is not "unreasonable" under the Fourth Amendment.
History suggests Justice Douglas had the better of the argument. In the years since Terry, stops, interrogations, and searches of ordinary people driving down the street, walking home from the bus stop, or riding the train, have become commonplace—at least for people of color. As Douglas suspected, the Court in Terry had begun its slide down a very slippery slope. Today it is no longer necessary for the police to have any reason to believe that people are engaged in criminal activity or actually dangerous to stop and search them. As long as you give "consent," the police can stop, interrogate, and search you for any reason or no reason at all.
Just Say No
The first major sign that the Supreme Court would not allow the Fourth Amendment to interfere with the prosecution of the War on Drugs came in Florida v. Bostick . In that case, Terrance Bostick, a twenty-eight-year-old African American, had been sleeping in the back seat of a Greyhound bus on his way from Miami to Atlanta. Two police officers, wearing bright green "raid" jackets and displaying their badges and a gun, woke him with a start. The bus was stopped for a brief layover in Fort Lauderdale, and the officers were "working the bus," looking for persons who might be carrying drugs. Bostick provided them with his identification and ticket, as requested. The officers then asked to search his bag. Bostick complied, even though he knew his bag contained a pound of cocaine. The officers had no basis for suspecting Bostick of any criminal activity, but they got lucky. They arrested Bostick, and he was charged and convicted of trafficking cocaine.
Bostick's search and seizure reflected what had become an increasingly common tactic in the War on Drugs: suspicionless police sweeps of buses in interstate or intrastate travel. The resulting "interviews" of passengers in these dragnet operations usually culminate in a request for "consent" to search the passenger's luggage.11 Never do the officers inform passengers that they are free to remain silent or to refuse to answer questions. By proceeding systematically in this manner, the police are able to engage in an extremely high volume of searches. One officer was able to search over three thousand bags in a nine-month period employing these techniques.12 By and large, however, the hit rates are low. For example, in one case, a sweep of one hundred buses resulted in only seven arrests.13
On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Bostick's case that the police officer's conduct violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment, the court reasoned, forbids the police from seizing people and searching them without some individualized suspicion that they have committed or are committing a crime. The court thus overturned Bostick's conviction, ruling that the cocaine, having been obtained illegally, was inadmissible. It also broadly condemned "bus sweeps" in the drug war, comparing them to methods employed by totalitarian regimes:
The evidence in this case has evoked images of other days, under other flags, when no man
traveled his nation's roads or railways without fear of unwarranted interruption, by individuals who had temporary power in Government.... This is not Hitler's Berlin, nor Stalin's Moscow, nor is it white supremacist South Africa. Yet in Broward County, Florida, these police officers approach every person on board buses and trains ("that time permits") and check identification, tickets, ask to search luggage—all in the name of "voluntary cooperation" with law enforcement.14
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The Court ruled that Bostick's encounter with the police was purely voluntary, and therefore he was not "seized" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Even if Bostick did not feel free to leave when confronted by police at the back of the bus, the proper question, according to the Court, was whether "a reasonable person" in Bostick's shoes would have felt free to terminate the encounter. A reasonable person, the Court concluded, would have felt free to sit there and refuse to answer the police officer's questions, and would have felt free to tell the officer "No, you can't search my bag." Accordingly, Bostick was not really "seized" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and the subsequent search was purely consensual. The Court made clear that its decision was to govern all future drug sweeps, no matter what the circumstances of the targeted individual. Given the blanket nature of the ruling, courts have found police encounters to be consensual in truly preposterous situations. For example, a few years after Bostick, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals applied the ruling to a case involving a fourteen-year-old girl interrogated by the police, concluding that she must be held to the same reasonable-person standard.15
Prior to the Bostick decision, a number of lower courts had found absurd the notion that "reasonable people" would feel empowered to refuse to answer questions when confronted by the police. As federal judge Prentiss Marshall explained, "The average person encountered will feel obliged to stop and respond. Few will feel that they can walk away or refuse to answer."16 Professor Tracey Maclin put it this way: "Common sense teaches that most of us do not have the chutzpah or stupidity to tell a police officer to 'get lost' after he has stopped us and asked us for identification or questioned us about possible criminal conduct."17 Other courts emphasized that granting police the freedom to stop, interrogate, and search anyone who consented would likely lead to racial and ethnic discrimination. Young black men would be the likely targets, rather than older white women. Justice Thurgood Marshall acknowledged as much in his dissent in Bostick, noting "the basis of the decision to single out particular passengers during a suspicionless sweep is less likely to be inarticulable than unspeakable."18
Studies have shown that Maclin's common sense is correct: the overwhelming majority of people who are confronted by police and asked questions respond, and when asked to be searched, they comply.19 This is the case even among those, like Bostick, who have every reason to resist these tactics because they actually have something to hide. This is no secret to the Supreme Court. The Court long ago acknowledged that effective use of consent searches by the police depends on the ignorance (and powerless-ness) of those who are targeted. In Schneckloth v. Bustamonte , decided in 1973, the Court admitted that if waiver of one's right to refuse consent were truly "knowing, intelligent, and voluntary," it would "in practice create serious doubt whether consent searches would continue to be conducted."20 In other words, consent searches are valuable tools for the police only because hardly anyone dares to say no.
So-called consent searches have made it possible for the police to stop and search for drugs just about anybody walking down the street. All a police officer has to do in order to conduct a baseless drug investigation is ask to speak with someone and then get their "consent" to be searched. So long as orders are phrased as a question, compliance is interpreted as consent. "May I speak to you?" thunders an officer. "Will you put your arms up and stand against the wall for a search?" Because almost no one refuses, drug sweeps on the sidewalk (and on buses and trains) are easy. People are easily intimidated when the police confront them, hands on their revolvers, and most have no idea the question can be answered, "No." But what about all the people driving down the street? How do police extract consent from them? The answer: pretext stops.
Like consent searches, pretext stops are favorite tools of law enforcement in the War on Drugs. A classic pretext stop is a traffic stop motivated not by any desire to enforce traffic laws, but instead motivated by a desire to hunt for drugs in the absence of any evidence of illegal drug activity. In other words, police officers use minor traffic violations as an excuse—a pretext—to search for drugs, even though there is not a shred of evidence suggesting the motorist is violating drug laws. Pretext stops, like consent searches, have received the Supreme Court's unequivocal blessing. Just ask Michael Whren and James Brown.
Whren and Brown, both of whom are African American, were stopped by plainclothes officers in an unmarked vehicle in June 1993. The police admitted to stopping Whren and Brown because they wanted to investigate them for imagined drug crimes, even though they did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion such crimes had actually been committed. Lacking actual evidence of criminal activity, the officers decided to stop them based on a pretext—a traffic violation. The officers testified that the driver failed to use his turn signal and accelerated abruptly from a stop sign. Although the officers weren't really interested in the traffic violation, they stopped the pair anyway because they had a "hunch" they might be drug criminals. It turned out they were right. According to the officers, the driver had a bag of cocaine in his lap—allegedly in plain view.
On appeal, Whren and Brown challenged their convictions on the ground that pretextual stops violate the Fourth Amendment. They argued that, because of the multitude of applicable traffic and equipment regulations, and the difficulty of obeying all traffic rules perfectly at all times, the police will nearly always have an excuse to stop someone and go fishing for drugs. Anyone driving more than a few blocks is likely to commit a traffic violation of some kind, such as failing to track properly between lanes, failing to stop at precisely the correct distance behind a crosswalk, failing to pause for precisely the right amount of time at a stop sign, or failing to use a turn signal at the appropriate distance from an intersection. Allowing the police to use minor traffic violations as a pretext for baseless drug investigations would permit them to single out anyone for a drug investigation without any evidence of illegal drug activity whatsoever. That kind of arbitrary police conduct is precisely what the Fourth Amendment was intended to prohibit.
The Supreme Court rejected their argument, ruling that an officer's motivations are irrelevant when evaluating the reasonableness of police activity under the Fourth Amendment. It does not matter, the Court declared, why the police are stopping motorists under the Fourth Amendment, so long as some kind of traffic violation gives them an excuse. The fact that the Fourth Amendment was specifically adopted by the Founding Fathers to prevent arbitrary stops and searches was deemed unpersuasive.
The Court ruled that the police are free to use minor traffic violations as a pretext to conduct drug investigations, even when there is no evidence of illegal drug activity.
A few months later, in Ohio v. Robinette , the Court took its twisted logic one step further. In that case, a police officer pulled over Robert Robinette, allegedly for speeding. After checking Robinette's license and issuing a warning (but no ticket), the officer then ordered Robinette out of his vehicle, turned on a video camera in the officer's car, and then asked Robinette whether he was carrying any drugs and would "consent" to a search. He did. The officer found a small amount of marijuana in Robinette's car, and a single pill, which turned out to be methamphetamine.
The Ohio Supreme Court, reviewing the case on appeal, was obviously uncomfortable with the blatant fishing expedition for drugs. The court noted that traffic stops were increasingly being used in the War on Drugs to extract "consent" for searches, and that motorists may not believe they are free to refuse consent and simply drive away. In an effort to provide some minimal protection for motorists, the Ohio court adopted a bright-line rule, that is, an unambiguous requirement that officers tell motorists they are free to leave before asking for consent to search their vehicles. At the very least, the justices reasoned, motorists should know they have the right to refuse consent and to leave, if they so choose.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down this basic requirement as "unrealistic." In so doing, the Court made clear to all lower courts that, from now on, the Fourth Amendment should place no meaningful constraints on the police in the War on Drugs. No one needs to be informed of their rights during a stop or search, and police may use minor traffic stops as well as the myth of "consent" to stop and search anyone they choose for imaginary drug crimes, whether or not any evidence of illegal drug activity actually exists.
One might imagine that the legal rules described thus far would provide more than enough latitude for the police to engage in an all-out, no-holds-barred war on drugs. But there's more. Even if motorists, after being detained and interrogated, have the nerve to refuse consent to a search, the police can arrest them anyway. In Atwater v. City of Lago Vista , the Supreme Court held that the police may arrest motorists for minor traffic violations and throw them in jail (even if the statutory penalty for the traffic violation is a mere fine, not jail time).