My name is Terrance Huff. I am a life long American citizen. While driving in these United States of America, I have been subjected to multiple “pretext traffic stops”. A pretext traffic stop occurs when a police officer decides he doesn't like something about the way you or your car looks. The officer then locks his gaze upon you, looking for any menial excuse to pull you over so he can search your vehicle. If the officer can not find a reason to pull you over, a reason will be fabricated like “following to closely” or “weaving”. My last pretext stop forced me to say that enough was enough. This resulted in a landmark civil rights case. The following is a significant portion of what I learned during this case.
On December 4th of 2011, My friend and I were targeted by a highway drug interdiction officer. His name was Michael Reichert and is under the employ of the Collinsville Illinois Police Department. As an interdiction officer, his job is to visually examine cars passing through his portion of highway. Reichert looks for indicators that could mean someone is a possible drug of cash courier. Finding a target is this is the first step in the highway asset forfeiture game and this is where our lessons begin.
How we were targeted by Reichert is mostly rooted in a program designed to catch drug runners that was initiated by the Illinois Highway State Police during the late 90's. The program entitled “Operation Valkyrie” was designed to teach awareness skills to drug police. These skills rely heavily on visual cues and recognition of traits that are common amongst known drug smugglers. Some of the traits (or indicators) include, older vehicle with new tires, two companions of the same sex, out of state license plates and driving in the right or middle lane, at or under the posted speed limit. We were traveling through Illinois, in a 2003 Chrysler. We were cruising the in the middle lane at 5 miles under the posted speed limit. The tires had been purchased 3 days before the trip. We are now on the side of the highway for “breaking our lane of travel”.
If you have seen my film “Breakfast in Collinsville” you know what happens next. Officer Reichert wants to search my car based on his suspicion that is steming from a 12 year old cannabis arrest which charges were dismissed. Reichert will perform a well rehearsed song and dance that is designed into pressuring me into surrendering my 4th Amendment Right. He tries to trick me into giving up my personal amount of whatever drug I was carrying by claiming he's “not overly concerned” about personal amounts. I refuse to let him search.
Reichert extends his song and dance into full blown roadside theater with the addition of a drug dog. Reichert claims his dog alerts to the presence of drugs but it conveniently happens off camera. We would spend a total of 55 minutes one the side of the road being searched from our pockets to the floor mats of my car before we were permitted to leave.
After some research on traffic stops and watching every K9 video I could find I was sure that he dog alert, as well as the rest of the stop was bogus. A Google search of “Michael Reichert Collinsville Police” would solidify my resolve. It was known within the courts that Reichert had a history of questionable traffic stops. Reichert cases had been thrown out of court due to credibility issues and had a conviction for selling knock off Oakley Sunglasses. It was clear to me that I must expose this this road side piracy to the world.
With the help of Chicago lawyers Louis Meyers and Dan Kiss, our pursuit to expose this roadside jackassery would lead to a Federal Civil Rights Case. We also released a second film entitled “Lodging in Collinsville”. In that film Officer Reichert admits to “wiping weed” on cars of unsuspecting motorists for “K9 Training” during his deposition. He also confesses the awareness that another drug dog down alert on the same car hours later due the residual smell. Theoretically this could be used to “set up” drivers for a search. Collinsville, as well most other police departments in Southern Illinois, in the area are equal partners in an a “equitable sharing agreement”. All police departments in this agreement share a portion of what they collectively confiscate no matter which department makes the bust or seizes cash.
After making our way through the Seventh Federal Court Circuit, we settled Huff V. Reichert at the urging of the court during a court ordered settlement conference on April 8th 2014 for $100,000. Huff v. Reichert is now precedent within the Seventh Circuit and can be used as a persuasive court argument throughout the United States. The court affirmed that police officers have rules to abide by just like everyone else. If officers do not obey those rules, they can and should be held accountable. Huff v. Reichert is already being cited in other cases involving stops like ours.
Why did this happen in first place? What makes a highway drug interdiction officer so eager to pursue drivers and try so hard to search their vehicles? The answer is simple: Asset Forfeiture. The internet is filled with horror stories about confiscation of property and cash from motorists by highway drug interdiction officers, most of which are never charged with a crime.
Many people in the United States unknowingly haul illegal drugs after purchasing used cars at auctions. In 2011 psychologist in California found $500,000 worth of cocaine hidden in the door panels of his used Chrysler Town & Country 15 months after he bought the car, when his car was in the shop having its brakes examined.
In 2002, a man in Artesia New Mexico purchased a car at a police auction. He would discover nearly 10 pounds of cocaine under his console when he went in to repair his emergency brake.
In 2008, a man by the name Mike bought a used Pontiac from a car dealership in Georgia. Mike took his recently purchased vehicle into an audio shop to have a stereo system installed. Much to his surprise, the technician working on his Pontiac discovered bags of powder and crack cocaine concealed under the dash and in the steering column. The drugs did not belong to Mike so he notified the authorities. The car was traced back to previous owner, a major car rental agency. It would be impossible to determine the origin of the cocaine.
I don't know if Mike really understood how much trouble he would have found him if he had been targeted by a highway drug interdiction officer. What if a guy like Mike had been traveling through another state in that cocaine filled vehicle? Let's say he had just withdrawn $3000.00 of savings and was going to purchase a camper. On the way to pick up the camper, he is stopped by a drug interdiction officer. Now this guy like Mike has a K9 alert to his vehicle. The cocaine is discovered by the officer. Now this guy like Mike is under arrest for a felony narcotics trafficking offense. His money is seized under, citing asset forfeiture laws and his car will soon follow.
A guy like Mike is stripped search and jailed. A guy like Mike keeps telling the police that he's innocent. The officers laugh because they hear that every day. The arresting agency phones a warrant into a guy like Mike's home county. His home is raided and all of his property seized.
A guy like Mike will spend the next 15 months and $10,000 in legal fees trying to prove his innocence in two separate cases. Regardless of a guy like Mike's verdict, he's never getting his money back. If he is fortunate a guy like Mike walks away from this case unemployed and penniless. If he is found guilty, a guy like Mike could spend a decade or more prison. Both verdicts or any plea deal will result in a life ruined and a bank account emptied because a guy like Mike bought a used car that once was rented by a cocaine smuggler who had forgotten some of his load.
This brings me back to a guy named Mike who pulled me over in December of 2011. What if I unknowingly had drugs in my used car? I interviewed one of the nicest guys I have ever met for my film “Forfeiture in Collinsville”. His name was Bob Stahl. He revealed exactly what happens in Collinsville if you caught with drugs or cash. Bob was driving medical cannabis from California to Ohio. The cannabis was to be used to ease his dying father's suffering. A traffic jam would force him to take a single nights residence at a Motel 6 in Collinsville Illinois.
The hotel clerks in Collinsville work with the police and are rumored to phone in license plate numbers of persons staying there to police dispatch. The police run the plates looking warrants. The Collinsville police also check the FBI criminal data base for all arrest records, regardless of disposition. If they find a drug arrest, the police in Collinsville will stalk the driver when he leaves the hotel and find a reason to pull them over.
This happened to Bob. It cost him his real estate license, his business, his bank accounts in California, $10,000 in legal fees and $26,000 of his life savings. His father would die alone in a nursing home while Bob was fighting his court case in Collinsville and having assets seized over possession of a plant that is now legal in Illinois for medicinal use. Senseless.
Asset Forfeiture laws offer terrible incentives for some police to do what they do. These laws create zealot police officers who froth at the mouth while chasing the high one can get from making a big bust. Andrew Hawkes, a top high drug interdiction officer, uses the pitch “Feel the rush of finding the Mother Lode!” to sell his interdiction books at http://highwaydruginterdiction.com.
Hawkes is also a blogger for a police officer information website at Policeone.com. In his post “Legal weed and the future of drug interdiction” Hawkes affirms that the war on drugs is not about public safety at all. Hawkes writes “The only difference in the future will be that instead of arresting the mule for possession of 300 pounds of marijuana, you’ll arrest them for possession of 300 pounds of untaxed marijuana.” Straight from the horses mouth: The war on drugs is about MONEY. As laws change, cops enforcing these fleeting drug laws are looking for new ways to arrest, imprison and extort American citizens. No one is safe from an officer who is addicted to chasing and arresting people. We need to be wary of drug police who suffer from “Arresting Madness...” It's unfortunate that a sensible of pursuit of public saftey doesn't offer the same “rush” these officers get from busting people for victimless crimes or offer the same financial incentives as confiscating someone's cash.
The lessons learned: Asset forfeiture laws have criminalized possession of cash currency regardless of the monies origin. Asset forfeiture laws and failed drug policy have created predatory policing for profit which is basically state funded highway robbery. Drug interdiction police, driven by bad policy, look for any means to peel away the layers of our constitutional protections. Some drug interdiction police will blatantly violate someones rights because they know it will cost money and time that most people dont have to fight it. Bad laws are used as a means of legalized extortion that often will leverage an individual's freedom, forcing the victim to surrender their assets even if the person has committed no crime. It's unfair. It's immoral. It's UnConstitutional. It's time to reform drug policy and asset forfeiture laws. It's time to legalize and tax cannabis.
Terrance Huff is a civil rights activist, award winning filmmaker and actor. He is currently shooting his next film, a feature length how-to documentary called “Blue Shakedown: How to sue a cop and get paid.” Terrance can also be seen in James Franco's “Child of God” which is scheduled to hit theaters August 1st 2014.