Noontime on Saturday is cleanup time for junkies assembling on the corner of New York Avenue and North Capitol Street NE. Crouching among the crab grass in the baking heat, their faces shaded by poor sleep and purple scars, they are clients of the Whitman-Walker Clinic’s roving needle-exchange program. As Mildred Baldwin, 48, waits for the clinic’s Ford E-350 RV to pull up, she holds her purse tight against her bulging belly. She eyes all corners of the busy intersection. She’s looking for cops.
When the van arrives, the junkies hesitate to take their needles and bleach, sensing the police are about to show. After a few clients pass through, a 1st District officer parks his cruiser a few feet away. He doesn’t get out of car. He doesn’t have to. The clients scurry away, spill into side streets, and vanish into old lots. The Whitman-Walker volunteer spends the next hour trying to track them down.
Even though Whitman-Walker’s needle-exchange program is paid for by a District contract and credited with assisting more than 3,000 clients, it hasn’t earned the respect of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). According to Baldwin and other needle-exchange clients, the cops routinely wait for them to receive their clean needles and then pat them down for violations of the District’s laws against possession of drug paraphernalia (PDP).
Three weeks ago, says Baldwin, one of D.C.’s finest simply pulled up and frisked the entire line of needle recipients. “He wouldn’t even look up at my [needle-exchange] card,” she remembers. “The officer said, ‘Get the fuck away from here before I lock your ass up’….He took all of our stuff.”
“For the most part, [MPD is] just ignorant to what we do here,” says Mike Pryor, director of Whitman-Walker’s needle-exchange program. Pryor adds that he has testified on behalf of almost a dozen clients all of whose cases were dismissed. “They’re saying, ‘I’m not going to let this happen on my beat.’ I think they do it for punishment.”
Busting Whitman-Walker clients is not what the city had in mind when it passed the paraphernalia laws, which can apply to just about any substance bottle caps, straws, shoe laces, rolling papers, balloons, and sealable baggies.
With officers searching every lunch box, car ashtray, and teenager for these items, MPD is piling up record numbers of bad searches and dismissed cases. In a city where homicide closure rates continue to languish, paraphernalia laws which may offer some succor to the politicians who enacted them have junkies and cops in an odd dance of wasted time and frittered resources.
When former Ward 8 Councilmember Eydie Whittington introduced the Drug Paraphernalia Act of 1996, she hoped it would stop stores from selling 1-inch sealable “crack bags.” To prove her point, Whittington had gone undercover outing stores that sold the bags.
“I would go into the store and ask for ‘crack bags,’” Whittington remembers. “I had to see what was going on.” She hit every ward and got several stores to cough up crack bags. Her stings put the entire D.C. Council on alert. The bill moved quickly and passed unanimously despite the misgivings of MPD and public defenders. The law added crack bags and a couple of other items to the list of illegal drug paraphernalia. Whittington believed the measure would strengthen the department’s hand against a new target mom-and-pop convenience stores.
“My legislation was meant to stop the merchants,” Whittington says. “My legislation didn’t go past that. That’s where it started and it ended. I didn’t talk to the police about searching in cars and homes.”
Whittington’s crusade has gone the same place as most misdemeanor drug laws nowhere. Cliff Keenan, chief of the 5th District Community Prosecution Section of the U.S. Attorney’s office, says he doesn’t remember one case involving retail sales of baggies. “No one is doing anything about those, by and large,” Keenan says. “Is this an effective law? This could be an effective law if it were utilized in a proactive way, if the officers or detectives worked closely with the prosecutors. It has all the earmarks of a valuable tool, but heretofore, it has not been considered significant enough to spend much time on.”
MPD, Whittington, and other drug-paraphernalia warriors, says Keenan, are missing a crucial point: Few prosecutors will bring charges against someone for possessing a pipe or an empty baggie. Controlled substances, he argues, must be part of the package. Keenan upbraids officers for using paraphernalia laws to stretch probable cause and conduct unwarranted patdowns. “What you’re seeing are the uniformed guys going after the users and charging them with whatever [paraphernalia] they are able to find,” he says.
When officers have probable cause to suspect someone of using a deadly weapon, they may conduct a head-to-toe patdown. However, no such authority applies to drug busts. Keenan says cops aren’t given the proper training on PDP. “Officers can’t be doing patdowns for drugs,” says Keenan. “I don’t know how many officers know that. Officers have got to be careful about overstepping their bounds….[Bad searches] happen quite a bit.”
Bad searches frequently stem from bad laws. By the time Whittington’s bill was passed, the District already had a long history of failed crime-tool statutes. In the ’60s, then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Halleck adopted an old law originally aimed at burglary tools to fit heroin accessories. To make those busts stick, the cops had to have three items a syringe, a cooker, and a needle. But, eventually, some of those cases started being thrown out by the Court of Appeals. The law wasn’t ruled unconstitional, but the cops had to prove the tools were drug-specific in other words, they couldn’t bust someone for having just a pipe. These statutes were too difficult to prosecute and soon faded from practice.
None of that, however, fazed a D.C. Council eager to show it was legislatively equal to the challenge of the city’s runaway drug trade. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the council passed laws and amendments that today saddle the cops and courts with superfluous cases. In fact, the council’s activism on paraphernalia made Whittington’s legislation largely unnecessary. The definition of paraphernalia was already vague enough, stating, “It is unlawful for any person to use, or to possess with intent to use, drug paraphernalia to plant, propagate, cultivate, grow, harvest, manufacture, compound, convert, produce, process, prepare, test, analyze, pack, repack, store, contain, conceal, inhale, ingest, or otherwise introduce into the human body a controlled substance.” That about covers everything from a straw at McDonald’s to a garden hoe.
MPD officers, however, rarely set out to bust perps solely on the equipment charges. But Vice Officer Sherrie Forester (1D) reports, for example, that she finds drugs on about 50 percent of her PDP searches. (Other officers report much lower rates.) And even when the searches turn up only a bong or rolling papers, she hauls in the collars even though she knows the cases will go nowhere. “That’s just the way things are,” Forester explains. “I don’t lock people up by what the U.S. Attorney’s office is going to do. That doesn’t stop you.”
It does, however, keep officers off the streets. Each paraphernalia case entails two hours of paperwork as well as lab work to check for drug residue. One former vice officer says most paraphernalia busts are rookie mistakes. “When you see someone just arresting for paraphernalia, that’s because they don’t have the experience yet,” he says. “It’s just a waste of their time and the court’s time….That’s a waste of manpower.”
Yvonne Anderson knows how much time MPD officers spend rummaging around for drug paraphernalia. Anderson lives on 1st Terrace NW, a hotspot for all kinds of drug exchanges. On three separate occasions, she says, the police have raided her house in search of drug paraphernalia.
On the third raid, in early November 1995, the police finally saw something sinister in her kitchen aluminum foil. Anderson says she was promptly charged under the city’s paraphernalia laws. The charges were eventually dropped.