Thursday, March 18, 2010

Officer, you've got the wrong person

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
Mistaken identity arrests likely happen every day, experts say

Name similarities, identity theft and computer typos can cause errors

Improved fingerprinting technology can minimize mistakes

(CNN) -- Three police cars pulled into Christina FourHorn's front yard one afternoon just before she was supposed to pick up her daughter at school. The officers had a warrant for her arrest.

"What do you mean robbery?" FourHorn remembers asking the officers. Her only brushes with the law had been a few speeding tickets.

She was locked up in a Colorado jail. They took her clothes and other belongings and handed her an oversize black-and-white striped uniform. She protested for five days, telling jailers the arrest was a mistake. Finally, her husband borrowed enough money to bail her out.

"They wouldn't tell me the details," she said.

Later, it became clear that FourHorn was right, that Denver police had arrested the wrong woman. Police were searching for Christin Fourhorn, who lived in Oklahoma.

Their names were similar, and Christina FourHorn, a mother with no criminal record living in Sterling, Colorado, had been caught in the mix-up.

FourHorn went public about her case more than two years ago, filing a lawsuit that alleged the arrest violated her constitutional rights. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from arrest without probable cause.

The problem of mistaken arrests continues, said attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. The group, which represented FourHorn, calls Denver's police work "recklessly sloppy." An ACLU mistaken identity lawsuit on behalf of four other people is pending against Colorado police agencies.

A mistaken identity arrest occurs almost every day, said policing experts and officials at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. But most people taken into custody are released shortly after the mistake is realized.

Since the FourHorn case, the ACLU found at least 237 cases in Colorado in which police may have arrested the wrong person. The figure is likely a small sample since police often release those wrongfully arrested before the first court appearance, the ACLU said.

"We are trying to demonstrate that this is a widespread practice," said Mark Silverstein, an ACLU attorney who filed FourHorn's suit in 2008. FourHorn's case was settled, and the terms remain confidential.

"This is not some fluke in a rational system," Silverstein said. "It's something that happens regularly, predictably, and therefore the city should be doing more to ameliorate the problem."

Silverstein said his search of Colorado court records showed repeated examples of police arresting the wrong person:

"Defendant states this is not him and he has never driven a car!!!!" said one.

"Dismissed, wrong defendant. Sister used her ID," another said.

In 2009, Denver's Department of Safety found 51 cases in which a person claimed the warrant naming them was incorrect -- a number that's a small fraction of the 46,864 people arrested that year. A Denver police spokesman declined to comment on the mistaken identity arrests.

"While no one should be misidentified and incorrectly held in jail, we realize it can happen," said Mary Dulacki, records coordinator for Denver's manager of safety.

Experts at the Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute said name similarities such as in the FourHorn case are a common reason for errors. The group, based in Indianapolis, Indiana, trains police departments across the country on how to avoid mistaken arrests.

Other times, police may be relying on a person's alias. Suspects often give officers false names, which remain on their records as an alias. Also computer typos and glitches lead to mistaken identity arrests, policing experts said.

An alias mistake allegedly occurred in March 2007 when Denver police arrested Muse Jama, a college student studying for an exam, under a warrant for a person named Ahmed Alia. Jama's name had popped up as one of Alia's aliases.

Jama protested and showed the officers his identification cards. Still, he was arrested and remained behind bars for eight days. His lawsuit against the Denver Police Department, filed in 2008, is pending.

"Naturally police think people are lying when the person says they didn't do it," said Jack Ryan, an instructor at the Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute and police officer for two decades.

"But that doesn't change the fact that there needs to be an investigation," he added. "The overall philosophy of justice in this country is that an innocent person shouldn't be locked up."

In Christina FourHorn's case, she was about 100 pounds heavier than the suspect, Christin Fourhorn. Her middle name is Ann, while the suspect's middle name is Blue. She was also seven years older and didn't have a tattoo on her left arm, which the suspect did.

But the problem doesn't exist solely in Colorado.

In New York this month, a 37-year-old man filed his second lawsuit against the New York Police Department, alleging he was wrongfully arrested twice -- even after receiving a $120,000 settlement for an earlier mistaken arrest.

In Florida, several mistaken identity arrest cases made headlines in 2009. One case included a Naples high school coach who was arrested on drug charges because of identity theft.

Advances in fingerprinting technology have made it faster for police to identify the right person. But police departments across the country continue to face obstacles. An agency that issues the warrant may not be the same agency that makes the arrest and puts a person in jail, according to criminal justice experts. Even when faced with protests, jail officials can't get to the bottom of things until they get in touch with the warrant-issuing agency, attorneys said.

Arrests can cross state lines, which can take weeks or months to clear up, said William Buckman, co-chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' Law Enforcement and Prosecutorial Committee.

"Too often law enforcement doesn't reinvestigate, doesn't call for a superior," he said. Buckman, who practices in New Jersey, said he gets several calls a month from people caught up in mistaken identity arrests.

The growing frequency of identity theft also has put a strain on officers, said Jay Foley, head of the Identity Theft Resource Center in California. One part of Foley's job is to help victims of identity theft and mistaken identity arrests clear records.

Police need to keep a database that not only lists a suspect's aliases but also includes information about the people who have been wrongly arrested, he said.

"You will have fewer people in jail, sitting and waiting," Foley said.

In Denver, the police have developed a process to report when someone protests an arrest, claiming a case of mistaken identity.

Fourhorn is now 36 and still living in the same Colorado home where police arrested her. She recently had her record expunged of the mistaken robbery and assault charges. The process took almost two years, even though she should have never even been arrested in the first place.

The arrest almost cost her her nursing job, she said.

She said her family won't get back $3,500 her husband borrowed to pay a bondsman to get her out of jail.

When FourHorn sees a police car, she says she gets uneasy. She knows she shouldn't. But then again, she reasons: "If it happened once, it can happen again."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mexican Drug gangs hushes killings with news blackout

Powerful Mexican cartel buys off journalists to work as spies

By Robin Emmott

March. 15, 2010

REYNOSA, Mexico - A powerful drug cartel is buying off journalists in northern Mexico to work as spies and smother coverage of a spike in killings on the U.S. border in the latest attack on the media in Mexico.

Hitmen from the Gulf cartel based over the border from Texas are paying reporters around $500 a month and showering them with liquor and prostitutes to intimidate and silence colleagues at radio stations and newspapers in towns near the Laredo-Brownsville area, journalists and editors say.

A turf war that has erupted over the past three weeks around the manufacturing city of Reynosa has gone almost completely unreported despite more than 100 deaths, in a news blackout made more notable by the intense media coverage of other drug war flashpoints around the country.

Across Mexico, nearly 19,000 people have been killed in drug violence since President Felipe Calderon came to power in late 2006 and launched a military-backed campaign against drug cartels. The bloodshed worries Washington and is scaring off foreign investment and tourists as Mexico's economy tries to recover from its worst recession in decades.

For years, ill-paid Mexican reporters have occasionally been forced by cartel gunmen to take money to report favorably on traffickers or hush up killings, but the Gulf cartel now appears able to impose an almost total muzzle on reporting violence from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros.

Reporters at news radio stations and dailies including El Manana and La Prensa say they have little choice but to ignore the fight over smuggling routes that has broken out between the Gulf gang and its former armed wing the "Zetas."

"Our newsrooms have been infiltrated by these reporters, they monitor what we write, they know where we live. With this system, the narcos have direct control over us," said a local newspaper editor who declined to be named for safety.

Many of the rogue journalists do little to hide their dealings with traffickers and have been seen arriving at news conferences or crime scenes in flashy new SUVs accompanied by armed men, often to prevent news of any killings getting out.

One reporter in the border town of Nuevo Progreso said his job involved talking cash from corrupt local police in the pay of the Gulf cartel and distributing it to local reporters.

Others caught by the army at sporadic checkpoints have struggled to explain the hundreds of dollars bulging in their wallets when most local reporters earn less than $400 a month.

Directors at El Manana and La Prensa in Reynosa were not immediately available for comment.

'No trouble here'
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, said it is aware some journalists are working for cartels.

"We know this is happening. It is a consequence of the huge level of influence these criminals exert," said Carlos Lauria, the committee's senior coordinator for the Americas.

Desperate to spread news of the new outbreak of violence, residents in and around Reynosa have turned to social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to post cell phone videos of shootouts and report suspicious activity.

"One of the fundamental human rights has been taken away in this part of Mexico and the federal government is not speaking out about it," said Alberto Islas, an independent security analyst in Mexico City.

Some honest reporters choose not to report the violence out of fear for their safety. Cartel attacks have made Mexico one of the world's most dangerous countries for the media, the CPJ says, with at least 24 journalists killed here since 2006.

So-called narco-reporters may be at an even greater risk of getting caught up in the turf wars. Five reporters suspected of working for the Gulf cartel went missing two weeks ago in Reynosa.

"We don't know who they angered but it wasn't because of their journalism. Two of the reporters hadn't published anything in months," said a colleague of the missing journalists.

Local politicians say the Gulf cartel, which controls a third of narcotics shipments into the United States, is keeping its war with the Zetas as quiet as possible to avoid provoking army deployments that could disrupt its smuggling operations.

Calderon has sent thousands of troops across Mexico to curb drug gang operations, but the army presence around Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros is still relatively light.

"The Gulf cartel's message is: there's nothing happening here," said a town councilor in Rio Bravo next door to Reynosa. "The hitmen even pick up their dead after gunfights so there's no evidence of what's going on," he added.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fake Weed, Real Drug: K2 Causing Hallucinations in Teens

Fake Weed, Real Drug: K2 Causing Hallucinations in Teens

by Jeanna Bryner
LiveScience Managing Editor jeanna Bryner
livescience Managing Editor Thu Mar 4, 6:50 am ET

Teens are getting high on an emerging drug called "fake weed," a concoction also known as K2 and "spice" that is also causing hallucinations, vomiting, agitation and other dangerous effects.

In the last month, Dr. Anthony Scalzo, a professor of toxicology at Saint Louis University, has seen nearly 30 cases of teenagers experiencing these adverse effects after smoking the fake weed, a legal substance that reportedly offers a marijuana-like high.

"K2 use is not limited to the Midwest; reports of its use are cropping up all over the country," Scalzo said. "I think K2 is likely a bigger problem than we're aware of at this time." For instance, Atlanta has seen about 12 cases recently.

K2 has been sold since 2006 as incense or potpourri for about $30 to $40 per three gram bag - comparable in cost to marijuana.

"K2 may be a mixture of herbal and spice plant products, but it is sprayed with a potent psychotropic drug and likely contaminated with an unknown toxic substance that is causing many adverse effects," said Scalzo, who also directs the Missouri Regional Poison Control Center.

Origin of K2

This K2 compound was first created in the mid-1990s in the lab of organic chemist John W. Huffman of Clemson University, who studies cannabinoid receptors. He's not sure how the recipe for what is named JWH-018 (his initials) got picked up, but he did publish details on a series of compounds including JWH-018 in a book chapter. Even before that book came out, he recalls learning that in China and Korea people were selling the compound as a plant growth stimulant.

As for where it was first smoked or used as a recreational drug, Huffman thinks perhaps somewhere in Europe.

"Apparently somebody picked it up, I think in Europe, on the idea of doping this incense mixture with the compound and smoking it," Huffman told LiveScience. "You can get very high on it. It's about 10 times more active than THC," the active ingredient in marijuana.

From a chemist's perspective, that means K2 has an affinity for the cannabinoid brain receptor (CB1) that's about 10 times greater than THC. For the less chemically inclined, it means you can smoke a lot less K2 to get just as high.

The compound works on the brain in the same way as marijuana's active ingredient THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. Both compounds bind to the CB1 receptors, which primarily affect the central nervous system. JWH-018 also binds to the peripheral brain (CB2) receptors, which are involved in the immune system, Huffman said.

Hallucinations and delusions

Since JWH-018 or K2 acts like marijuana, you'd expect to see the same effects, including sleepiness, relaxation, reduced blood pressure, and at high doses, hallucinations and delusions.

While some patients between the ages of 14 and 21 were showing up with hallucinations, other symptoms, such as increased agitation and elevated blood pressure and heart rates, didn't match up with marijuana.

Scalza speculates either another compound is responsible for the nasty side effects, or the concentration of JWH-018 is too high.

To answer this question, Scalzo is having doctors test patients' urine for JWH-018 and other compounds, but he is having trouble getting patients to agree to the test.

"This is not something that people are agreeing to," Scalzo said during a telephone interview. "Here's a legal substance that we don't know really that much about that people are putting into their bodies without quality control."

And even though doctors like Scalzo say they'd like to help the teens, that's not enough. "Phenomenally, people are saying no. They're afraid someone is going to find something," though Scalzo has no idea why they'd be afraid.

Dangerous drug

Both Scalzo and Huffman agree the drug is dangerous.

Further testing is needed, but Scalzo says the symptoms, such as fast heart beat, dangerously elevated blood pressure, pale skin and vomiting suggest that K2 is affecting the cardiovascular system of users. It also is believed to affect the central nervous system, causing severe, potentially life-threatening hallucinations and, in some cases, seizures.

"It's like playing Russian roulette. You don't know what it's going to do to you," Huffman said. "You're a potential winner of a Darwin award," referring to the tongue-in-cheek awards given to people who "do a service to humanity by removing themselves from the gene pool."

In addition to the compound being made without strict quality control or any regulation, as far as anyone knows, the compound itself has never been tested on humans. And when it was tested on mice, Huffman said, the animals were euthanized at the end of the experiment, so scientists don't even know how it affects mice long-term. "And mice are not humans," Huffman said.

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