Source: Des Moines Register (IA) Contact: Fax: (515) 286-2511 Website: Pubdate: Sun, 6 Sep 98 Author: Rekha Basu, Register Columnist


This is a tale about drug enforcement - two different kinds.

One is set in the tony suburb of Clive, another on the highways of Iowa and the inner-city streets of Des Moines.

One applies to the general public, the other to public officials.

Worst of all, your support for one kind might wane when you hear about the other.

If you happened to drive on 1-80 east this summer, you might have come up against a mobile flashing sign warning, in about these words: "Drug Enforcement Ahead: Be Prepared to Stop."

Of course, if you know your Fourth Amendment rights, you'd be suspicious, since stops and searches of cars without probable cause are illegal.

As you kept going, however, you'd discover it was a ruse sponsored by the Iowa Department of Public Safety in collaboration with county attorneys. No actual stop, just a ploy to make you panic, so that if you had drugs, you might do something rash like try to dump them at the nearest rest area or jump the median.

Some might call that clever. Others might call it entrapment. Marty Ryan, assistant director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, calls it "very sleazy." He encountered one such sign about 4 miles east of Altoona last week, and worries they might force people to pull off in search of a side road, fearing they'll be unnecessarily detained.

"If this was a business, the attorney general would be all over them for false advertising," he said.

The jury was still out, Public Safety Commissioner Paul Wieck told me earlier this sumnier, as to how successful the approach was in its debut appearance in Iowa. But it did send some people to jail, so I suppose, by some measure, it worked.

When I first heard about it, though it sounded kind of deceptive, I decided to wait and see. It didn't seem like law enforcement was breaking any laws. Iowa's got a growing methamphetamine problem and the state's highways apparently are a conduit for some major trafficking.

But by last week, my tolerance had worked itself into outrage when I read of something unrelated but very relevant. An off-duty state trooper attending a late July party in Clive had witnessed a group, possibly including Clive City Council member John Schiefer and Dave Ennen of the planning and zoning commission, smoking what he believed to be marijuana. He neither arrested them nor confiscated the alleged drugs. Instead he went off and filed some sketchy report with his patrol district, in Mason City, later telling City Manager Dennis Henderson he didn't think he had enough information for criminal charges.

You could argue - and I'd agree - that marijuana is relatively benign. But it is sending other people without the same official protection to jail.

I spoke to the girlfriend of one young man who spent the night in the Scott County Jail because of the so-called drug stops. She'd believed

the state's drug crackdown was on meth and cocaine, but people were being hauled into jail for marijuana. Yet a trooper from the same public safety team is virtually handed three drug arrests, and he walks away.

By week's end, Ennis and Schiefer had quit their posts, without admitting any wrongdoing, as the city manager's office closed in on them with its own investigation. But that doesn't erase the cynicism that there are two sets of law-enforcement standards, and one is for public officials protecting their own.

It has barely been long enough for wounds to heal from the case of Urbandale Officer James Trimble, the 18-year police veteran who pleaded guilty to a Class C felony for possession and intent to distribute after being stopped driving around in a poor part of town with $20,000 worth of meth in his van. The drugs were stolen from a police department evidence locker.

He could have gotten 10 years in prison, but he got probation, a $1,000 fine and community service. The police department never even pressed charges for the theft.

Meanwhile, last Wednesday's paper had a spread on the drug crackdown in Des Moines' near-north side. As usual, the pictures showed young African-American men being stopped by police for questioning. Try convincing them the law works the same for everyone.

Either drug enforcement is serious business warranting extreme measures or it isn't. Either minor marijuana possession should result in arrests or it shouldn't. If we can't all play by the same rules, let's drop the charade.

REGISTER COLUMNIST REKHA BASU can be reached at (515) 284-8208 or

The Des Moines Register