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Martha Little* came home late one frigid January night to a dark home and found her kitchen door had been kicked in. She lived alone, and this was the third break-in. The first two had been reported to the police, and although she had been out late celebrating her brother’s birthday, she removed anything related to marijuana from her home and gave the police a call at the advice of her family.
Twenty minutes later two male officers showed up. Martha invited them in and showed them her door. She showed them how it had been kicked in, she showed them the damage and how the wood had been snapped off; then she told them about the money which had been stolen, as well as her grandmother’s (whose home it had been previously) prescription medication.
The police listened, looked at the door, and when she was finished one officer said, “Well it smells like weed in here, were you smoking in here? Do you think the burglars did? Why does it smell like weed?”
Martha stared, “I don’t know.”
She had been expecting to talk about the break-in, she had been expecting to file a report. She had been expecting some help, some justice, but now, alone after 1 am on a cold January night, she was facing down two cops in her home who seemed more interested in the aroma of her abode than the evidence that someone had broken into her home and jeopardized her safety.
Later she would muse, wondering if they had even smelled marijuana at all, as she had not been smoking in her home, or if they simply made assumptions based on the Bob Marley poster on her wall.
“Well can we look around?” the senior officer said.
“Yeah that’s fine, but are you going to investigate the break-in?” Martha asked.
“Yeah we’ll do that,” he replied flippantly.
It was at that point they asked to look in her purse. Martha consented, but it was late and she had just come home from a party, she had forgotten about the less than a gram of marijuana she had in a small bag in her purse. They found it, confiscated it, and the direction of their visit was abruptly steered far away from her home invasion.
“Well, we’re gonna have to charge you with this,” said the senior officer. He grabbed her wrists. “Don’t struggle,” he added unnecessarily, as she cooperatively allowed him to cuff her hands behind her back, before searching her pockets and then having her sit on the couch.
At this point, two more cop cars pulled up, and three more male officers entered the scene. Five male officers to handle a case of one female with less than gram of weed; a blatant display of wasted resources.
“Five male officers showed up to handle a case of one female with less than gram of weed.”
Three of them searched her house, one watched her, and the other looked around outside of her home. They searched all of her things, her drawers, her whole home. Occasionally, one of the two first responders would re-approach her to ask questions.
“Who do you know? Who do you know who would rob [your home]? You have to tell us who it is. You must know,” they insisted over and over.
Martha’s frustration grew. “I have no idea. I have no idea. I’ve had previous break-ins. Usually in the day, maybe neighborhood kids? I have no idea.”
At this point, an officer in her bedroom found a scale, which she had forgotten she owned, and called out, “Well, this is why her house got broken into!”
“You have no idea why my house was broken into! That proves nothing,” Martha retorted, her temper flaring. She could see plainly now that the men currently rummaging through her home, as the burglar(s) themselves had done hours earlier, did not care about investigating the actual crime that had happened that night.
They searched her basement and insinuated that she was growing although they found nothing there. The original responding officer, the senior one, came back over to her and asked again, this time raising his voice in a demanding tone, “Who do you know who broke into the house?!”
“Dude. I have no idea who’s breaking into my house. Stop asking me that,” Martha replied, her own voice raised now in response.
“First of all, don’t call me dude! That’s not how you respect an officer!”
“Alright, SIR, I have no idea who is breaking into my house,” she said, enunciating each word.
The officer angrily stepped outside. A few moments later he returned.
“Broken glass, paints, why is all of this laying around?”
“I do art,” Martha said, dumbfounded.
“Well you any good?” he sneered in her face.
At this point, Martha’s grandmother arrived, but the police wouldn’t tell her what was happening. They told her they would be taking Martha to the station and it could be a few hours.
They took her in and processed her. Then they confiscated her shoes and put her in a cold cell for an hour afterwards. She sat there waiting, listening to them jovially discussing television in the next room. At last they brought her paperwork to sign, which she did quickly and with little resistance, as she was eager to leave and be done with the ordeal.
After two-and-a-half hours in the station, she was uncuffed and told to enter the waiting room and fill out the break-in report.
She made the report brief, simply seeking respite from the situation and wishing to leave as quickly as possible. When she was done, the senior officer who had first responded came over and told her where to sign, with her discharge papers in his hand. As she was signing the clipboard, he shoved the papers into her front pocket, while looking into her face and smiling.
Martha’s stomach dropped, his actions left her feeling unnerved and violated; there had been no need for him to touch her. However she made no complaints, because all she wanted was to leave.
Martha was charged with a misdemeanor. She hired a lawyer, and told him how they had never read her her rights. Her lawyer said it wasn’t an avenue worth pursuing, because as it turned out, the papers she had hurriedly signed in the jail cell were papers to confirm she had been read her rights.
She went to court, plead guilty for a conditional discharge, was given probation for a year, a thousand dollars in fines, and had to take a drug test, which she passed.
Martha never heard another word about her break-in report. She knew after that night they didn’t care and wouldn’t be investigating. She never pursued it. Martha says she will never call the police again. Her trust in them has been destroyed.
While the police who arrived at the scene would have been expected to look around the premises, their attention should have been on looking for intruders. The police were not entitled to look anywhere without consent where an intruder could not hide, not in drawers and certainly not in Martha’s purse.
If Martha had been read her rights, she could have felt comfortable saying no to their request to search. This is one of many examples of why everyone needs to be very aware of their rights.
The focus of the police on the smell of marijuana more than on the burglary they were called to deal with is “…such a classic example of how the War on Drugs literally destroys the relationships between communities and law enforcement,” says Diane Wattles-Goldstein, a 21-year veteran of law enforcement and executive board member for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).
When our safety is threatened, many people still think to call the police first. After all, they are there to “protect and serve” right?
In 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled that police do not have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm, not even when there is a court-issued protective order.
In the face of this ruling and cases like Martha’s, we must ask ourselves, if the police aren’t concerned or even obligated to protect us, who will? Are we prepared to bear the brunt of self defense, and how must we act to ensure we can protect ourselves if thrust into the face of danger?
Martha’s arrest is just one of more than thousands which take place every year where innocent people are turned into criminals. Meanwhile, violent criminals (burglars, rapists, murderers, etc) seem to be pursued with less than half the luster in Drug War America.
The backlog of untested rape kits is in the hundreds of thousands and according to LEAP, in the United States, while 9 in 10 burglaries go unsolved, there is a drug arrest every 19 seconds, 82% of which are for possession alone.
What are the ramifications of living in a world where less than a gram of marijuana is considered more dangerous than a home invasion?
Unfortunately, Martha’s arrest serves as a prime example and a stronger statement of how the War on Drugs impedes the process of bringing actual criminals to justice. May her story serve as a an example of the many stories which go untold, swept under the rug, and left to dirty the justice system just a little more.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity
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