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California Court OKs Police Manufacture of Rock Cocaine


September-October 1997

On August 15, the 4th District Court of Appeals in Santa Ana, California ruled that Santa Ana police did nothing improper when they manufactured rock cocaine at a sheriff's laboratory in 1994 and sold it to drug suspects (Stuart Pfeifer, "Court gives police OK to make rock cocaine," Orange County Register, August 15, 1997, p. 1; Thao Hua, "Court Upholds Sting That Used Drugs Made by Police," Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1997, p. A18).

The decision (People v. Robert Ramos, Super. Ct. No. 94CF1568) reverses a 1995 ruling by Orange County Superior Court Judge David O. Carter, who called the program "outrageous" and ordered police to cease making their own rock cocaine. The decision upholds the conviction of Robert Ramos, one of more than 400 suspects arrested during a 1994 sting operation. Ramos was convicted of buying $15 worth of crack (See "Santa Ana Police Make Crack to Use in Busts," NewsBriefs, November 1994; "Another California Police Force Under Fire for Reverse Sting Operations," NewsBriefs, February 1995).

In the ruling, Associate Justice Thomas F. Crosby Jr. wrote that People v. Backus (23 Cal.3d 360 (1979)) "recognizes that police may (within reason) engage in otherwise illegal activities in their efforts to eradicate illicit narcotics." [Emphasis added] The court added, "We are unable to perceive why the manufacture of rock from powder cocaine taken from closed criminal cases is outrageous or violates due process."

In an article in the Villanova Law Review, Eric Sterling, points out the problem of this tactic, contrasting typical law enforcement with drug law enforcement. Typically a crime is first committed. An investigation then leads to a suspect. Drug enforcement is topsy-turvy: "A suspect is identified first. Next, an investigation is commenced and evidence is gathered. And, then, at the appropriate moment, the crime is finally committed" when the government sells the drugs. Sterling concludes, "... one of the most corrosive aspects of the enforcement of drug prohibition [is that] ... the effective, 'proactive' enforcement of drug laws requires the government to create the crimes that are going to be prosecuted" (Eric E. Sterling, "The Sentencing Boomerang: Drug Prohibition, Politics and Reform," Villanova Law Review, Volume 40, Number 2, pp. 406-407, 1995).

For a copy of the opinion or law review article, contact the NewsBriefs office at (202) 835-9075.