Pubdate: Sat, 03 Dec 2011
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2011 The New York Times Company
Author: Marc Lacey
Bookmark: (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition)


PHOENIX - Border Patrol agents pursue smugglers one moment and sit 
around in boredom the next. It was during one of the lulls that Bryan 
Gonzalez, a young agent, made some comments to a colleague that cost 
him his career.

Looking for signs of smugglers near Nogales, Ariz., alongside the 
fence that now marks part of the nation's border with Mexico.

Stationed in Deming, N.M., Mr. Gonzalez was in his green-and-white 
Border Patrol vehicle just a few feet from the international boundary 
when he pulled up next to a fellow agent to chat about the 
frustrations of the job. If marijuana were legalized, Mr. Gonzalez 
acknowledges saying, the drug-related violence across the border in 
Mexico would cease. He then brought up an organization called Law 
Enforcement Against Prohibition that favors ending the war on drugs.

Those remarks, along with others expressing sympathy for illegal 
immigrants from Mexico, were passed along to the Border Patrol 
headquarters in Washington. After an investigation, a termination 
letter arrived that said Mr. Gonzalez held "personal views that were 
contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are 
patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps."

After his dismissal, Mr. Gonzalez joined a group even more exclusive 
than the Border Patrol: law enforcement officials who have lost their 
jobs for questioning the war on drugs and are fighting back in the courts.

In Arizona, Joe Miller, a probation officer in Mohave County, near 
the California border, filed suit last month in Federal District 
Court after he was dismissed for adding his name to a letter by Law 
Enforcement Against Prohibition, which is based in Medford, Mass., 
and known as LEAP, expressing support for the decriminalization of marijuana.

"More and more members of the law enforcement community are speaking 
out against failed drug policies, and they don't give up their right 
to share their insight and engage in this important debate simply 
because they receive government paychecks," said Daniel Pochoda, the 
legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, 
which is handling the Miller case.

Mr. Miller was one of 32 members of LEAP who signed the letter, which 
expressed support for a California ballot measure that failed last 
year that would have permitted recreational marijuana use. Most of 
the signers were retired members of law enforcement agencies, who can 
speak their minds without fear of action by their bosses. But Mr. 
Miller and a handful of others who were still on the job - including 
the district attorney for Humboldt County in California and the 
Oakland city attorney - signed, too.

LEAP has seen its membership increase significantly from the time it 
was founded in 2002 by five disillusioned officers. It now has an 
e-mail list of 48,000, and its members include 145 judges, 
prosecutors, police officers, prison guards and other law enforcement 
officials, most of them retired, who speak on the group's behalf.

"No one wants to be fired and have to fight for their job in court," 
said Neill Franklin, a retired police officer who is LEAP's executive 
director. "So most officers are reluctant to sign on board. But we do 
have some brave souls."

Mr. Miller was accused of not making clear that he was speaking for 
himself and not the probation department while advocating the 
decriminalization of cannabis. His lawsuit, though, points out that 
the letter he signed said at the bottom, "All agency affiliations are 
listed for identification purposes only."

He was also accused of dishonesty for denying that he had given 
approval for his name to appear on the LEAP letter. In the lawsuit, 
Mr. Miller said that his wife had given approval without his 
knowledge, using his e-mail address, but that he had later supported her.

Kip Anderson, the court administrator for the Superior Court in 
Mohave County, said there was no desire to limit Mr. Miller's political views.

"This isn't about legalization," Mr. Anderson said. "We're not taking 
a stand on that. We just didn't want people to think he was speaking 
on behalf of the probation department."

Mr. Miller, who is also a retired police officer and Marine, lost an 
appeal of his dismissal before a hearing officer. But when his 
application for unemployment benefits was turned down, he appealed 
that and won. An administrative law judge found that Mr. Miller had 
not been dishonest with his bosses and that the disclaimer on the 
letter was sufficient.

In the case of Mr. Gonzalez, the fired Border Patrol agent, he had 
not joined LEAP but had expressed sympathy with the group's cause. 
"It didn't make sense to me why marijuana is illegal," he said. "To 
see that thousands of people are dying, some of whom I know, makes 
you want to look for a change."

Since his firing, Mr. Gonzalez, who filed suit in federal court in 
Texas in January, has worked as a construction worker, a bouncer and 
a yard worker. He has also gone back to school, where he is 
considering a law degree.

"I don't want to work at a place that says I can't think," said Mr. 
Gonzalez, who grew up in El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad 
Juarez, which has experienced some of the worst bloodshed in Mexico.

The Justice Department, which is defending the Border Patrol, has 
sought to have the case thrown out. Mr. Gonzalez lost a 
discrimination complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity 
Commission, which sided with his supervisors' view that they had lost 
trust that he would uphold the law.

Those challenging their dismissals are buoyed by the case of Jonathan 
Wender, who was fired as a police sergeant in Mountlake Terrace, 
Wash., in 2005, partly as a result of his support for the 
decriminalization of marijuana. Mr. Wender won a settlement of 
$815,000 as well as his old job back. But he retired from the 
department and took up teaching at the University of Washington, 
where one of his courses is "Drugs and Society."

Among those not yet ready to publicly urge the legalization of drugs 
is a veteran Texas police officer who quietly supports LEAP and spoke 
on the condition that he not be identified. "We all know the drug war 
is a bad joke," he said in a telephone interview. "But we also know 
that you'll never get promoted if you're seen as soft on drugs."

Mr. Franklin, the LEAP official, said it was natural that those on 
the front lines of enforcing drug laws would have strong views on 
them, either way. It was the death of a colleague at the hands of a 
drug dealer in 2000 that prompted Mr. Franklin, a veteran officer, to 
begin questioning the nation's drug policies. Some of his colleagues, 
though, hit the streets even more aggressively, he said.

Mr. Franklin said he got calls all the time from colleagues skeptical 
about the drug laws as they are written but unwilling to speak out - yet.

"I was speaking to a guy with the Maryland State Police this past 
Saturday, and he's about to retire in January and he's still 
reluctant to join us until he leaves," Mr. Franklin said. "He wants 
to have a good last couple of months, without any hassle."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom