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Answering Community's Call, ACLU Vows Full Investigation into Selective Prosecution of Indian Store Owners in Northwest Georgia

ROME, GA - In collaboration with the local community and a national South Asian organization, the American Civil Liberties Union today announced its defense of three convenience store owners and workers of Indian descent arrested for selling common household items that can be used in the production of methamphetamine.  The ACLU promised a thorough investigation into claims that law enforcement selectively targeted the Indian community based on national origin and race.

"There are too many unanswered questions about the validity of evidence against these store clerks for the prosecutions to go forward in good conscience," said Christina Alvarez, a staff attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project.  "We have launched a full investigation to determine the extent of police misconduct in this ill-conceived operation."

The investigation, termed "Operation Meth Merchant," was undertaken in late 2003 by local law enforcement in conjunction with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).  The operation was aimed at 24 convenience stores in Northwest Georgia and resulted in criminal charges against 49 individuals.  All but one of the stores targeted are Indian-owned, and all but five of the individuals charged are of Indian descent -- 33 with the last name Patel.  The ACLU noted that, according to legal briefs submitted on behalf of defendants, approximately 75 percent of convenience stores in the area are owned by whites. 

The ACLU is joining the case on behalf of three of the accused, Falgun Patel, Sudhirkumar Patel and Satishkumar Patel, and has launched an investigation into claims of selective enforcement and prosecution based on national origin and race.  If successful, such claims could result in the dismissal of all defendants' cases based on the fact that the U.S. Constitution prohibits prosecution based solely on national origin and race.  The accused face up to 25 years in prison, forfeiture of their stores and fines of up to $250,000.  Additionally, many of those charged are potentially facing deportation.

"Ours is but the latest community targeted and blamed in the drug war, a war that has corrupted our institutions to the point where we are willing to send innocent people to prison for the sake of politics and creating a false sense of security," said Aparna Bhattacharyya, executive director of Raksha, a Georgia-based South Asian community organization. "We welcome a full and thorough investigation into these cases and are committed, in the meantime, to assessing and meeting the immediate needs of the families affected."

Operation Meth Merchant focused on apprehending those selling legal products that can be used to make the illegal drug methamphetamine.  These products include common convenience store staples, such as cold medicine (which includes an active ingredient in methamphetamine, psuedoephedrine), kitty litter, matches, aluminum foil, cooking fuel, and charcoal. 

The investigation and subsequent charges relied heavily on the use of a confidential informant with a history of fraud convictions.  This informant has, over the course of the investigation, falsely identified at least three of the accused.  In addition, about a dozen mostly white informants previously convicted of assorted methamphetamine-related crimes were involved in the operation and promised reduced sentences for generating cases that could be "successfully" prosecuted - arguably leading them to pursue a vulnerable, largely non-English speaking immigrant population.

Most of the charges resulting from the operation are based on the presumption that the storeowners and clerks understood the slang terms used by confidential informants during the transactions, such as "cook," as obvious indications that the products sold would be used for manufacturing an illegal drug. 

"We have come to the United States and built our businesses out of nothing," said Upendra Patel, president of the Asian American Convenience Stores Association.  "These laws are too vague and let the larger chain stores off the hook. They are the ones selling large quantities of these products, and the police don't even look twice at them."

A joint statement concerning Operation Meth Merchant issued by Raksha and South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SAALT), a national organization dedicated to the full and equal participation of South Asians in the civic and political life of the United States, is available online at: http://www.raksha.org/raksha/documents/Community_Response_Final.htm

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