Pubdate: Fri, 16 Jun 2006
Source: Rome News-Tribune (GA)
Copyright: 2006sRome News-Tribune
Author: Lauren Gregory, Rome News-Tribune Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


The ACLU Hopes New Evidence Monday Will Prove "Operation Meth 
Merchant" Targeted South Asians

A little more than a year after 49 Northwest Georgia convenience 
store owners and employees first appeared in U.S. District Court as a 
result of "Operation Meth Merchant," more than 60 percent of the 
cases have been resolved through plea agreements. But that doesn't 
mean 60 percent of the defendants are guilty, according to civil 
rights advocates scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Rome on Monday.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union hope a hearing set 
to begin at 10 a.m. will bring new evidence to light proving 
investigators conducting the "Meth Merchant" investigation 
specifically targeted South Asians.

Defendants in the case are charged with selling ingredients they 
allegedly knew would be used to make methamphetamines. Of the 49 
individuals implicated, 44 are South Asian and 33 share the common 
surname Patel.

Charges were dropped against 10 of the original defendants. Another 
30 have pleaded guilty, according to court records, leaving nine 
awaiting trial.

The ACLU plans to use the hearing to call to the stand two 
confidential informants used in the investigation, according to 
Daniel Berger, a spokesman for the organization.

The informants -- referred to only as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2 in a 
motion for dismissal of charges filed by the ACLU in April -- 
allegedly have information indicating law enforcement officials 
"ignored numerous active leads that they had received regarding 
identical sales by non- South Asian merchants."

The officers repeatedly directed informants to make buys at South 
Asian-owned establishments, according to the Does' statements as 
cited by the ACLU: "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 one of the informants. 
"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 

Members of the Racial Justice Campaign Against Operation Meth 
Merchant have long voiced their concerns about so many of the 
defendants in "Meth Merchant" cases being South Asian and, in many 
cases, not very fluent in English. Campaign organizer Deepali Gokhale 
believes officials may have seen this immigrant community as "an easy 
target" that could help them to prove they were successfully fighting 
Georgia's meth epidemic.

According to Gokhale, immigrants from India who are not familiar with 
the American justice system have been pigeonholed into pleading 
guilty, whether or not they actually are. "It's very sad to see the 
choices these people are left with," said Gokhale, adding that many 
of the defendants and their families have been drained both 
financially and emotionally over the past year.

In signing guilty pleas, said Deepa Iyer, executive director the 
national non-profit organization South Asian American Leaders of 
Tomorrow, "most defendants are really making a cost-benefit analysis 
- -- what is it going to cost them financially, what is it going to 
cost them emotionally."

Iyer cites a statistic from the 2003 Sourcebook on Federal Sentencing 
Studies indicating that 95 percent of all federal cases result in 
guilty pleas. She does not believe all 95 percent are guilty.

Iyer and civil rights attorney Vanita Gupta compare prosecutions in 
"Meth Merchant" to prosecutions in a case in Tulia, Texas, that they 
say ultimately revealed racist motivations in a white undercover 
narcotics officer involved in a drug sting. In that case, Iyer and 
Gupta wrote in a March 3 editorial published in "India Abroad," 
defendants targeted because they were black "believed they could not 
get a fair trial and feared being sent to prison for a longer period 
of time if they did not plea."

Similarly, Iyer said, defendants in "Meth Merchant" may not have 
wanted to take the chance of facing 20 years in prison, fines of as 
much as $250,000 and deportation if convicted during trial. Court 
records show that none of those who signed plea agreements have been 
sentenced to more than 10 months in prison.

Some may have needed to wait awhile before deciding to go ahead with 
their pleas because "generally speaking, you're looking at 
individuals who are very new to the criminal justice system," Iyer 
said. "We do say there are cultural barriers because it is a foreign system."

U.S. Attorney David Nahmias has repeatedly denied any manner of 
selective prosecution or selective enforcement in "Meth Merchant." He 
has declined through a spokesman to comment on any case specifics or 
on any of the defendants' guilty pleas until after all of the cases 
have been resolved.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman