May 6, 2011

The Wire short-circuits in Seattle

Anyone interested in criminal justice and civil liberties in the Age of Perpetual Terrorism should read Brendan Kiley's deconstruction of an FBI investigation gone wrong--because it could never go right.
"The degree of surveillance and monitoring has been extremely expensive," the officer tells Rick, sounding equal parts intimidating and frustrated. "When you've gone to the QFC and Corsair and Tubs. Think over the last two years—everything you've done in private and on the streets, people you've talked to, what you've had in your possession, conversations, intentions, plans... I have to emphasize the level of surveillance we've run over the last two years. Tell us about all the drug deals in The Yard. You want me to tell you about the red cabinet where you keep the drugs? The cocaine? We have hundreds of hours of surveillance, wire, video..."

"That would seem to be an absurd waste of state financing and funding," Rick says. "And that actually scares me more than the charges... You guys aren't after anything bigger than this? This is it?..."

The Seattle police seem to think that Rick's guns point toward some kind of guilt.

"Why the need to have so many weapons on the premises?" one of the officers asks.

"My home?" Rick asks, sounding flabbergasted. "That's my home. I own a small amount of firearms legally, most of which are locked in an extremely secure gun safe in an unloaded manner. I'm a man from Oklahoma," he continues, "and there's no such thing as a man from Oklahoma who doesn't own a firearm or two. Even the hippies own guns."

The agents sit silent, seemingly flummoxed. They've pursued this target for years, luring him into a bust that they hoped would scare him into giving up some valuable intelligence about domestic terrorists, or city politicians, or at least some drug dealers. But they've fundamentally misunderstood their own investigation.
And what does it get them? Four indigent poker players.
The defendants are quiet, well dressed, and bewildered by the charges. One of them told me that the poker stakes were so low, he would lose or win $100 at most in the course of a night. ("All those guys were broke, broke as a joke," Mia Brown agrees. "They'd borrow five dollars from someone to go put on the card table. It was small and it was stupid.")

The defense lawyers will be bewildered by what they find in the discovery process--all the paperwork and evidence and audio and video surveillance accumulated by the two-year investigation that involved the FBI, SPD, SWAT teams, and federal firearms and immigration and customs agents. One defendant's discovery request turned up nearly 2,000 pages of documentation and over 100 CDs and DVDs, and even that defendant's attorney had to file extra requests because he said there were big gaps of time missing.

Why did law enforcement dedicate such massive resources to bust some penny-ante card players for charges that only one person has faced in the past 10 years?

One of the defendants, Brady McGarry, had a simple explanation: "If you spend that much time and money, you have to put somebody up on that cross."
Read the whole thing, if you have the patience--and stomach--for it.

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