April 5, 2006

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Police Scapegoated South Asians While Ignoring Others, Says ACLU in Legal Papers Filed Today

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> Facts About "Operation Meth Merchant"
> Motion for Dismissal of Charges

ROME, GA – The American Civil Liberties Union today unveiled evidence that a major police investigation into methamphetamine production unlawfully targeted South Asian convenience store owners and clerks based on race and national origin. In legal papers filed today, the ACLU asked a federal court to dismiss all remaining charges related to the controversial investigation in northwest Georgia, dubbed “Operation Meth Merchant.”

According to law enforcement’s own records as well as testimony from former investigators and informants involved in Operation Meth Merchant, the investigation intentionally targeted South Asians without any evidence of wrongdoing, while ignoring known white suspects, the ACLU’s filing reveals.

“Selling Sudafed while South Asian is not a crime,” said Christina Alvarez, an attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. “The U.S. Constitution requires police to investigate people based on evidence, not ethnicity.”

Undertaken by local and state police in partnership with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Operation Meth Merchant was purportedly aimed at convenience store owners and clerks selling legal household products, such as cold medicine, cooking fuel and matchbooks, which police claimed they knew would be used to make the illegal drug methamphetamine.

By the time Operation Meth Merchant was completed, almost 20 percent of the South-Asian-owned stores in the area were indicted, while only 0.2 percent of stores owned by whites or other ethnic groups were similarly accused. All in all, South-Asian-owned stores were nearly 100 times more likely to be targeted, according to the ACLU’s motion.

The charges arising from the investigation relied on the assumption that the South Asian store owners and clerks, most with limited English proficiency, understood slang terms used by police-directed informants during transactions, such as “cook,” to mean that the products sold would be used to make methamphetamine. 

“They only sent me to Indian stores…they wanted me to say things like ‘I need it to go cook’ or ‘Hurry up, I’ve got to get home and finish a cook’,” said an undercover informant in a sworn statement attached to the ACLU’s legal papers. “The officers told me that the Indians’ English wasn’t good, and they wouldn’t say a lot so it was important for me to make these kinds of statements.” The informant, listed as John Doe #2, must remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by law enforcement.

The ACLU also exposed evidence that police failed to act on numerous tips implicating at least 16 white-owned stores in the area.  Forced to divulge the source of their ingredients to police upon arrest, methamphetamine manufacturers routinely identified this group of local white-owned stores, yet there is no indication that police acted on such leads.

In at least one instance, according to a witness statement cited in the ACLU’s motion, law enforcement officials actually alerted a white store owner of the investigation and provided recommendations to avoid scrutiny, such as removing particular products from store shelves.

In its dismissal motion, the ACLU argues that the police’s decision to ignore substantial evidence specifically pointing to white-owned stores, and instead target South-Asian-owned stores absent any evidence against them, constitutes a clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects people from being selectively targeted by law enforcement based on their race and/or ethnicity.

Of the 49 individuals charged as a result of the investigation, 44 are of South-Asian descent – and 33 share the common last name of Patel. Notably, while more than 80 percent of area stores are owned by whites or other ethnic groups, 23 of the 24 stores targeted by the investigation are owned by South Asians.

“Northwest Georgia is made no safer by police targeting a particular racial group while giving a free pass to those they have good reason to believe are actually making and selling meth,” said Deepali Gokhale, organizer of the Racial Justice Campaign Against Operation Meth Merchant, a coalition of diverse community groups formed to protest the prosecutions.

Gokhale added, “Families have been torn apart and lives have been destroyed by this racist investigation, and they aren’t the only victims here.  We all lose when law enforcement adopts irrational approaches that waste taxpayer money, undermine the public’s trust, and leave us less safe in the process.”

Those charged face up to 20 years in prison, forfeiture of their stores, fines of up to $250,000, and, in some cases, deportation.  None of the South Asians targeted by Operation Meth Merchant are suspected of or charged with using, selling or producing methamphetamine.
The ACLU is representing Falgun Patel, Sudhirkumar Patel and Satishkumar Patel.  The cases are before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

The ACLU’s dismissal motion may be viewed at: www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/racialjustice/24908lgl20060405.html

Additional facts about Operation Meth Merchant may be found at:
www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/racialjustice/24909res20060405.html

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