by Ed Lyon
Throughout the United States, the federal government’s law enforcement agencies team up with local law enforcement agencies to form various task forces to monitor high-intensity drug trafficking routes. One such avenue is a stretch of highway in southern California called the 5 Freeway.
The Los Angeles portion of 5 Freeway runs through a scenic mountain pass and is referred to as the Grapevine. It is regarded as a cartel corridor used to bring drugs into the U.S., then money and weapons back to Mexico.
According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, a spike in drug overdoses around Santa Clarita spurred the office to form a unit of four Caucasian deputies to partner up with the federal government in a Domestic Highway Enforcement Team (“DHET”). Some arrests would be prosecuted in state courts, others in federal courts where penalties are harsher.
From this team’s inception in 2012 to 2018, around 2 tons of marijuana, over a ton of methamphetamines, 600 pounds of cocaine along with undisclosed amounts of heroin, fentanyl, and thousands of Oxycodone tablets, have been confiscated. Many thousands of arrests are credited to this team. These raw numbers would seem to point to success, but at what cost and methods were they achieved?
Eleven of the DHET busts prosecuted in federal courts wound up being dismissed because of deputies Adam Halloran and James Peterson employing tactics that violated the various suspects’ constitutional rights, such as prolonging stops in order to interrogate drivers, and their methods of asking for consent to search their vehicles. Federal Judge Robert H. Whaley summed up the DHET mission as one “certain to lead to more illegal arrests.” Deputy Peterson was removed from the DHET in 2017.
Seven more of the DHET arrests prosecuted in federal court wound up in a bust due to a lack of credibility displayed by Deputy Michael Vann. Drivers who handed their license to Vann too quickly or too slowly became suspect by that activity alone. Drivers’ facial expressions or even pointing in the direction they traveled from also constituted suspicious behavior. Quite unimpressed with Vann’s self-touted ability to read people, Federal Judge Philip S. Gutierrez said: “I have doubts about the magic psychological powers of Deputy Vann.”
L.A. County Sheriff’s Office officials claim to not know about the fiascos in the federal courts resulting in the dismissal of many of the DHET’s arrests. The team’s supervisor, Sergeant Daniel Peacock, stated that DHET cases are no longer being referred to the U.S. Attorney, though.
The most disturbing aspect of the DHET’s everyday activities are the statistical proportion of the people the unit stops. An analysis of the data reviewed by the Los Angeles Times from 2012 through 2017 involving over 9,000 stops showed at least 6,210, or 69 percent, involved Hispanic drivers. In contrast, California Highway Patrol officers stopped 378,000 vehicles, including 151,200 or 40 percent involving Hispanic drivers. With 48 percent of Los Angeles County Latino, the stops made by the DHET are problematic at best as they reek of racial profiling.
Columbia Law School professor Jeffrey Fagen testified in the federal civil rights lawsuit responsible for putting a stop to the New York City Police Department’s infamous stop-and-frisk policy. Regarding the statistical data from the DHET’s stops, he stated, “No matter how justified the stops are, this is what we call selective enforcement.” DHET Deputy John Leitelt’s numbers show that 74 percent of his stops involve Hispanic drivers. Selective indeed.
DHET exists in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Responding to statistical data queries, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department claimed to not collect racial information on traffic stops. The Riverside and San Bernardino county Sheriff’s Departments simply refused to release any data.
In response to the Times investigation, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell “launched a pair of internal reviews,” according to latimes.com.
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