Few photos have inspired as many words as that of a young Cuban boy face to face with a MP-5 machine gun. The Associated Press photo of federal armed agents seizing Elián González from his Miami relatives aroused outrage among many Americans and—perhaps ironically—several congressional conservatives. And while the photograph was unique, the act it captured was hardly unusual. Raids similar to the one on the González family home occur many times a day in the name of the War on Drugs, often with far more tragic results.
Take the case of Scott Bryant. Thirteen Wisconsin sheriff’s deputies burst into the 29-year-old’s trailer on the night of April 17, 1995, executing a no-knock warrant. Bryant, who was unarmed, was shot and killed during the assault while his 7-year-old son looked on. Police seized less than three grams of marijuana. On review, the county district attorney found that the shooting was “not in any way justified.”
Robert Lee Peters had just settled down to watch a movie with his family when St. Petersburg police officers smashed through his front door unannounced with a battering ram in July 1994. Fearing that his home was being burglarized, Peters grabbed a gun and fired at his attackers. The officers returned fire, killing the 33-year-old father of two. Police confiscated two pounds of marijuana.
Sometimes victims possess no drugs at all. Just ask the family of Annie Rae Dixon, an 84-year-old grandmother shot and killed during a 2 a.m. drug raid of her east Texas home in 1992. No drugs were ever found on the premises. One officer later hypothesized that his pistol accidentally discharged when he kicked open Dixon’s bedroom door. “[I] started throwing my guts up crying because I knew I had shot somebody that didn’t have no reason to be shot,” he said. No less vicious was the 1998 shooting death of Pedro Oregon Navarro by Houston police. Six officers stormed his home at 1:40 a.m. in a military-style raid after a man arrested for public drunkenness said Navarro was a drug dealer. Agents shot the bleary-eyed Navarro 12 times, killing him. A search of his residence produced no illicit drugs or weapons.
California rancher Donald Scott, 61, met a similar fate in 1992, when a team of local and federal agents burst into his mansion during a midnight raid, ostensibly to search for marijuana. When Scott reached for a pistol to defend himself, he was shot dead. An investigation by the Ventura County district attorney later revealed that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had fabricated evidence that Scott was cultivating pot because it hoped to seize his property, which was adjacent to a federal park. Ventura County officials eventually agreed to pay the Scott family $4 million in damages; the federal government agreed to pay $1 million.
More recently, a SWAT team from El Monte, California, raided a home in neighboring Compton on the evening of August 9, 1999, killing retired grandfather Mario Paz by shooting him twice in the back. Police executing the search warrant said they believed the house was sometimes used as a mail drop by a local drug dealer. Although police found no drugs and filed no charges against any of the surviving family members, they refused to return an estimated $11,000 dollars seized during the deadly raid.
Some victims are the victims of sheer error. Take the September 29, 1999, assault by Denver SWAT agents on the home of Ismael Mena. Mena, a 45-year-old father of nine, was shot eight times and killed by police in the unannounced raid. No drugs were found, and police now speculate that they may have had an incorrect address.
An equally vicious police blunder claimed the life of Reverend Accelyne Williams, a 75-year-old retired Methodist minister who suffered a fatal heart attack when Boston police broke into his apartment on March 24, 1994. Acting on false information provided by a confidential informant, anti-drug agents chased Williams to his bedroom, shoved him to the floor, and pointed guns at his head—inducing the heart attack that killed him. Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans later admitted at a press conference that police likely raided the wrong apartment. “If that is the case, then there will be an apology,” he said. Two years later, the city paid a $1 million settlement to Williams’s widow.
William Pitt expressed the importance Americans once placed on the sanctity of the home from trespass when he said: “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail—its roof may shake—the wind may blow through it—the storm may enter—the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter—all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.”
The fact that our government and law-enforcement personnel now view the sovereignty of the home as a quaint anachronism should disturb us all. In this regard, the photo of a terrified Elián González is a legitimate cause for congressional concern. However, rather than use this opportunity to attack the Clinton administration’s handling of one, highly politicized case, Congress should address the broader issue of whether the escalating enforcement of drug prohibition threatens the right of all of us to be secure in our homes. To the families of the victims named above, the answer is all too clear.
- Mikki Norris, Chris Conrad, and Virginia Resner, Shattered Lives: Portraits from America’s Drug War (El Cerrito, Calif.: Creative Xpressions, 1998), p. 66.
- David Kopel and Paul Blackman, “Death By Bounty Hunter,” Independence Institute Feature Syndicate, September 5, 1997; http://i2i.org/SuptDocs/OpEdArcv/op970906.htm.
- Norris, et al., p. 62; also see the Web site “Human Rights and the Drug War”: http://www.hr95.org.
- “Tyranny and the War on Drugs,” Investor’s Business Daily, September 21, 1999. The article is posted at http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v99/n1034/a08.html.
- Ari Armstrong and Dave Kopel, “The Drug War Kills Innocent People,” Denver Post, December 30, 1999; http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v00/n002/a09.html.
- “Family of Man Slain in Raid Rewarded,” Associated Press, January 12, 2000.
- “Tyranny and the War on Drugs.”
- Anne-Marie O’Conner, “Family of Police Shooting Victim Still Out $11,000,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 1999; http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v99/n1040/a07.html.
- Armstrong and Kopel.
- “Botched Raids and Collateral Casualties in the Drug War,” Common Sense for Drug Policy, http://www.drugsense.org/jnr/botched.htm.
- Ric Zahn, Zachary Dowdy, “Iron Fist of Police Swat Team Use Questioned,” Boston Globe, May 11, 1998; http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v98/n342/a03.html.