From - Sun May 03 09:58:16 1998

Human Rights and the Drug War by Mikki Norris

For six weeks beginning May 7, The San Francisco Public Library will host "Human Rights and the Drug War," a powerful exhibit using photographs of 100 current prisoners and their families to put a human face on policy.

The exhibit coincides with the 50th Anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, a document intended to set a standard for the policies of all nations. In practice, human rights abuses have largely been considered to be an exclusive problem of Second and Third World nations, with the Western Democracies, particularly the United States, assumed exempt from consideration. If that assumption is set aside, the war on drugs is found to be a source of serious human rights abuse within our own borders:

Article 5: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution also forbids cruel and unusual punishment, including excessive bail and fines.

US drug policy requires Draconian mandatory sentences disproportionate to the offense. Federal mandatory minimums sentence first-time nonviolent drug offenders to terms from five years to life without parole- longer terms than violent criminals convicted of murder, rape or robbery (who retain eligibility for parole).

Article 10: "Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an in dependent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him." The US Constitution also guarantees a jury trial for both criminal (Sixth Amendment) and non-trivial civil suits (Seventh Amendment).

Sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum laws tie judges hands; the nature of drug "crime" dictates that physical evidence be replaced by hearsay testimony; charges of "conspiracy," in which each person is liable for the entire offense regardless of involvement, favor plea bargaining over public trial.

Recent Supreme Court interpretation of civil asset forfeiture law allows one's life savings to be seized without charge of a crime; property under $500,000 can be forfeited administratively through summary judgment without judicial proceedings or jury trial. An accused, thus impoverished on the eve of his criminal trial may be unable to afford a lawyer. (161)

Article 12: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks." The US Fourth Amendment protects people from "unreasonable searches and seizures" by requiring that "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Zealous drug policy enforcement has increasingly caused US citizens to suffer loss of privacy: phone taps, urine testing, computer, garbage and mail searches, searches of bank records and utility bills- even infra-red scanning of dwellings. Employees are subject to random drug testing without probable cause or warrant. There are police drug sweeps of neighborhoods which block public roadways and detain search people and vehicles with dogs.

Fitting a "profile' stereotype such as racial or ethnic appearance, hair length, auto bumper stickers, etc. may single one out for harassment. Possession of $100 cash may be reason for police seizure as suspected drug income. Buying garden supplies from a store under police surveillance has led to a home search. "Drug" warrants are issued on hearsay evidence and served with battering rams. (216)

Article 16.3: "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state." The US Fourth Amendment lists "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects."

Families are major casualties of the Drug War. Children are traumatized by seeing their parents handcuffed face down on the floor while angry, armed men in dark suits brandish weapons and tear up the house. They are also injured when the family car, home, and bank accounts are taken, or when parents are sent to prison for decades. How do parents support a family from prison, financially or emotionally? How can an inner city community survive with a third of its adult male population stigmatized by a criminal record? (131)

by Mikki Norris Human Rights and the Drug War (aka HR 95) PO Box 1716, El Cerrito CA 94530.