Skirmishes in the War on Drugs

This is True‘s 4 September 2005 issue had a line-up of several stories about druggies doing incredibly stupid things. It’s a fairly common theme in True, in fact: drug and alcohol abuse very often makes people do stupid things. In this case, though, it was a bit of a setup: the final story in the group had quite a twist:

Final Skirmish

Anthony A. Diotaiuto, 23, was sitting in his Sunrise, Fla., home when suddenly someone broke down the door without any warning and rushed in. Diotaiuto, who has a gun permit, grabbed his gun to defend himself — and was shot about 10 times by police doing a drug raid. He was killed. Friends say Diotaiuto was a “casual” pot smoker who did not sell drugs. A search of the home found just two ounces of marijuana. Officers identified themselves as police when they “walked” into the home and ordered him to “freeze,” said police spokesman Lt. Robert Voss. “It was his choice not to follow orders.” (Miami Herald) …When the “war on drugs” means the government vs. its own people, it’s not surprising to learn that simple possession can become a death penalty offense.

I of course expected that this story would raise some eyebrows. That was its intent. And indeed I got some interesting feedback.

Dave in Ontario, Canada, was one of the “pros”:

Right on. Although I don’t know the statistics, I feel certain that ‘The War on Drugs’ has caused more misery, suffering, and deaths than the drugs themselves ever have. We need more people like you who have the courage to speak up.”

But the “cons” are quite a bit more interesting, so I’ll concentrate on those. David in Pennsylvania wondered:

How does the source claim to know the victim’s side of the story? If he was killed, he’s certainly not telling stories. It just seems a little bizarre. With the lack of any witnesses I’d be more inclined to believe the police. I always tend to err on the side of law enforcement.”

It took a bit of back and forth for me to fully understand David’s question. Who was the source of the “victim’s side of the story”? The police! The simple facts are, the police had a warrant and broke in without notice, the startled homeowner grabbed his licensed gun, and in response he was shot to death. End of story from their point of view. “The victim’s side” essentially is not reported. Being dead, he wasn’t really able to tell “his side.” That it’s this bad when it’s the police telling the story is fairly telling, isn’t it?

Greg, a long-time reader and a police officer in Tennessee:

I know you have some law enforcement experience so I was surprised to read what I interpreted as some anti-police bias in your wording of the story and the tagline as well. I am not familiar with Florida criminal law, but here in Tennessee, ‘just two ounces of marijuana’ is four times the amount considered felony possession (read: not simple) of marijuana. I would expect the [law] to be similar in FL as well. There also seems to be an assumption that police burst in without warning, leaving Diotaiuto to believe he may be under attack from violent criminals. Who are the witnesses claiming police did not properly knock and identify themselves? How would you expect a reasonable officer to respond to an armed individual upon executing a search warrant? Of course Diotaiuto was shot! He presented an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officers when he armed himself! I expect this kind of anti-police slant from the mainstream media, but not from you.

Greg remembers correctly: I was a sheriff’s deputy in northern California (and I do volunteer work now for the local sheriff and EMS agency). So how likely is it that I have an “anti-police bias”? Not very. Some back and forth with Greg revealed something interesting to me: Greg, presumably a long-time cop, has never heard of a no-knock warrant; they don’t have them in Tennessee. Since I was assigned to search and rescue, I never served a warrant when I was a deputy, but I was certainly aware of no-knock warrants in California, and from the wording of the story it’s fairly apparent to me that they have them in Florida. (A “no-knock” warrant allows them to do just that: break in without knocking — without announcing who they are — in order to take the house by surprise. Greg replied, “A no-knock warrant? Must be something they use in FL, but not here. I don’t know that the benefits of an unannounced entry outweigh the potential costs involved (i.e. encountering an armed individual who thinks he is being robbed). Probably not the best method to use.”) Well yeah: that’s part of the point; that’s clearly what happened here! But now I understand why he was confused, since there’s no such concept where he works. I had wrongly assumed they had such an option in every state.

I’ve never used drugs. Ever. Not one toke of pot, not one sniff of coke, not one hit of any illegal drug. Why not? They’re stupid. I value my common sense, my ability to think, my self control (or simply “my brain”) way to much to risk screwing it up. As a medic especially, I saw drugs ruin many, many lives. Anyone who has read True for awhile has gotten a pretty good idea of what I think of drug and alcohol abuse.

So if I’m not “anti-police” and I am indeed truly “anti-drug”, what’s the story really about? It’s an example of the failure of prohibition, and a telling one at that. Alcohol prohibition not only didn’t work in the U.S., it facilitated an immense organized crime structure. Drug prohibition, despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent and countless lives ruined, isn’t working either, and is helping to perpetuate the organized crime infrastructure. And, as Canadian reader Dave points out, our “war” on drugs may have “caused more misery, suffering, and deaths than the drugs themselves ever have.” Yet despite that obvious failure, the “War on Drugs” is escalating, and simple users, not just dealers, are being shot down in their own homes in that escalation. And this says nothing of completely innocent civilians who are the victims of mistaken identity, address errors, or wanton misinformation supplied by informants, many of whom are drug dealers themselves.

Now that you understand what I think about drugs, you should know I’m not about to tell you what to do with your life. You want to waste it away on drugs? I think you should be able to, just like you’re allowed to waste it away on booze. That is, as long as you don’t infringe on my rights. That means using them in private or at home, the same place Mr. Diotaiuto was when he was shot to death by the police. But if people go out and drive impaired, or get violent and assault someone, or commit any other crime due to drugs’ influence, then indeed they should be dealt with harshly — just like we’re doing with people who commit crimes while impaired by alcohol.

One important thing to remember in the Diotaiuto case: the police didn’t do anything “wrong” — I doubt very much that there will be any criminal charges against the officers involved. Indeed, as Greg pointed out, once they were confronted by a man with a gun, they pretty much had no choice; they “had” to shoot. Remember that in their justified-by-the-law arrogance, they blamed the victim (“It was his choice not to follow orders.”) Greg asked what I think should have happened once they were confronted by a man with a gun while in a residence with a legal search warrant? But that’s the wrong question! The question society needs to ask is, Should they have been there in the first place? Or, more widely, should society continue down this “War on Drugs” path, which pits the Government Of The People against …its own people? Or even more widely, should the government really be trying to force moral issues into the legal arena?

I definitely think it’s part of True‘s function to raise such questions to prompt public dialogue on important issues. They’re questions we need to raise among ourselves and, of course, our legislators. If you agree (or if you don’t), don’t write me; write them — they’re the ones who can do something about it.

Letters on the editorial are here.
Related: The War on Drugs.

2013 Update

I found a writeup on the case dated 2013 that noted police kept changing their story. They said Diotaiuto pointed his gun at officers, then backed off, saying it was found next to his body. Then they went back to the pointing story. The 2 oz of pot got dropped to 1 oz, then later to 16 g.

Diotaiuto didn’t need a concealed carry permit to have the gun in his house, but he had one — which means he went through, and passed, a background check. Police used this fact — that he went through the legal process and took a safety class — as an indication Diotaiuto was “potentially dangerous”(!) Criminals don’t go through all that and buy their guns legally, only law-abiding folks do that.

Neighbors who were awake during the raid say they didn’t hear any “Police! Open up!” type of announcement — just quiet, and then shooting.

“What in the hell were they doing with a SWAT team?” asks Eleanor Shockett. “To break into someone’s home at six in the morning, possibly awaken someone from a deep sleep, someone who has a concealed weapons permit? What did they expect to happen?”

Who is Eleanor Shockett? A retired Miami-Dade circuit judge. But she was apparently the only reasonable judge in the area. As expected, Diotaiuto’s family filed a federal lawsuit over the raid. It was dismissed in federal circuit court via summary judgment, and that decision was unanimously upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in September 2010. The clear message: it’s just fine for a SWAT team to raid a man’s house in the early morning, and shoot him to death if he resists, if the police think he just might have a tiny amount of marijuana.

And that’s exactly what you can expect from a “war” on drugs, fought by a militarized police force against the citizens they’re paid to protect.

(Update source: Huffington Post)

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9 Responses to Skirmishes in the War on Drugs

  1. dismalspring in Smyrna, TN February 19, 2011 at 11:47 pm #

    Tennessee officer is correct. The War on Drugs is a big deal here in Tennessee. This isn’t an isolated indecent, it is just a rare occasion when there is proof. I don’t do drugs, and hope that my kids never do drugs, but I hate to think that my personal choices are causing some handicapped man to be tortured because he wasn’t a good forced informant. It reminds me of the inquisition.

  2. Roberto in Kyle, TX July 31, 2013 at 9:28 pm #

    Just note: Diotaiuto is Italian for May God help you (Dio=God; t-contraction of te=you; aiuto=help.). His name made me laugh (and then feel guilty, of course) at the tragedy. The War on Drugs being waged against the American people by its own government has THE main earmark of evil: It is ridiculous!

    Evil is composed of just two things: Lies & Murder. There are many combinations, as in “lies to justify murder” or “murder to cover up lies” or… You get it. But the objective of Evil is to empower somebody above the Law. Excuse after excuse is used to control the uncontrollable just so that a group of people pick & choose which laws to enforce against which people. We have Rights in these United States. But that means we have a duty to fight for them against those who would use force to subjugate us.

    Well, down from my soapbox.

  3. bandit, Albuquerque August 31, 2015 at 10:26 pm #

    Two questions:

    1. Please prove the “war on (some) drugs can be won”? (Note equating drug use to a “war on murder” is false. Murder has been against the law all the way back to Moses and Hammurabi. All drugs have been legal and illegal over time.)

    2. Please show a common citizen has an effective defense to a corrupt cop. (Yes, *some* corrupt cops are eventually found and charged, but still fairly rare.)

    I’m waiting.

    I hope you’re very, very, patient. -rc

  4. Mike in Virginia September 1, 2015 at 8:36 am #

    So what was the final result (in the Anthony A. Diotaiuto case in Sunrise, FL)? Was there a wrongful death civil action brought, and if so, how did it turn out?

    An excellent question, so I researched it, and added an update above. Make sure you’re sitting down when you read it. -rc

  5. Don, Northern New York September 2, 2015 at 7:38 pm #

    You’re right on target, Randy. And I’d comment that the aspect of the War on Drugs which makes it even more pernicious is the mandate that the police can confiscate property (including boats, cars, etc.) without due process, sell it, and keep the money! This is a recipe for compounding inequity, and encouraging venality. There are many examples of abuse, and of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of getting improperly confiscated property returned, or even reimbursement for it.

    But this story brought another story to mind. In Seattle, they were trying to teach police restraint and mediation skills to change behavior and foster better relations with the public. Many police resisted; one commented, “Our job is to get the bad guys.” Sounds more like war than policing, and is consistent with the militarization of police forces (they are being issued the same weapons and hardware used in the Iraq war), and the use of SWAT teams for no good reason (in Sweden, one even showed up for a case of an illegally downloaded album by a 9-year-old girl). Even television shows it — police routinely approaching a witness’s house in force with drawn guns, for instance, when there’s no reason to expect armed resistance.

    But my reaction was, “No, your job is not to ‘get the bad guys’; your job is to protect the public, who incidentally are the people who pay your salary. Shooting them out of hand (look at chronicles of recent killings by police), or creating situations in which an armed response is required, does not meet this definition.” I wonder how that got lost in the evolution of modern “law enforcement” (in quotes, because you’re screwed whether or not the police are behaving lawfully — “failure to follow orders” being potentially a capital crime).

  6. Cheryl H., Rochester, NY September 4, 2015 at 10:42 pm #

    To Don in N. New York, I don’t remember where this decision was handed down — it might have been right here in our fair state — but a court decided that (summarized in my own words) it is *not* the job of the police to protect the general public; it is their job to enforce laws and catch lawbreakers. I was under the impression law enforcement’s job was to protect as well as enforce, but clearly I’ve been expecting too much of them. Time to hire a bodyguard with a concealed carry permit? ;p

    I think it’s high time pot was made legal nationwide to smoke in your residence/on your property/in approved medical facilities, and the laws regarding drug possession and jail time are LONG overdue for being rewritten. Rapists, molesters, abusers, and people who commit truly heinous crimes get out of prison years before people who were put away for possessing small amounts of weed in some states, and in others rape and possessing a few ounces of weed have the same sentence. That is totally out of whack. If you have a room full of brick of cocaine, I can see being put away for decades, but a few grams or ounces? Give me a break! Being locked away for decades because you had a little weed on you is even more ridiculous. I’ve never smoked weed and, because of medication I’m on, I doubt I ever will, but I know people who do and they are incredibly laid back and mellow when high. They never drive and never would. If anyone under the influence of weed caused an accident because weed impaired their abilities, then, by all means, they should be hit with a DUI. Anyone caught driving under the influence of any other substance should be hit with a DUI as well.

    If you’re caught in possession of a controlled/illegal substance, that should earn you a trip to rehab, not a trip to prison. If you’re not arrested, that means you don’t need to worry about a felony ending up on your record. No felony = much easier time getting a job, passing background checks, and getting things done in life, period. If you go to rehab instead of prison, that means your addiction, the reason you had the drugs, the crux of the issue, is dealt with head-on, beaten, and you’re given the tools to stay in control and stay sober. Rehab > prison.

    America’s problem with illegal drugs continues to grow worse and worse, rather than improve. The War on Drugs has been a failure. Period. If Illegal Drugs was a flesh-and-blood enemy, the American public would’ve called for an end to the War years ago because of how obvious it was we were losing and how slim our chances of winning were. It’s time to fall back, regroup, and try different tactics to gain control over “recreational pharmaceuticals”. Legalizing them and adding them to the roster of Controlled Substances as Schedule I, making them the tightest regulated and hardest to get, is one option. Another is to tightly regulate them and make them available to the public as “under the counter” drugs, like Sudafed is now (read: ask the pharmacist, you show ID and sign on the line, the pharmacist sells you a box of Sudafed).

  7. Butch/Texas September 5, 2015 at 9:03 am #

    Sadly the war on drugs has moved to sick old people in pain. There have been a few times where an elderly couple were taken off from the pain drugs that gave them a life and let them “appear” normal. They could not handle the thought of there grandkids seeing them crippled and unable to play with them. I know of 2 that took there lives. There are many more story’s just like this but they are invisible people so no one talks about it.

  8. Larry, Texas September 5, 2015 at 1:30 pm #

    A few years ago a no knock warrant was served on the wrong house in Indiana. An elderly man thought his house was being broken into and pulled his gun and was shot to death. Cops said “Oops!”

    What is wrong with the cops simply waiting until the suspect leaves his house to arrest him and then serve the warrant? Unless you have a hostage situation where someones life is in danger I fail to see the need for a no knock warrant.

    They should indeed be reserved for extreme circumstances, not everyday use. -rc

  9. Gerry, Boise, ID September 5, 2015 at 3:20 pm #

    It’s stories like this that make it really easy to believe that in most of the recent, highly publicized cases of cops shooting black men to death, that it was the boys in blue who were the real murderers. See, the problem with cases like the one in this article is that every time something like this goes down, it makes it harder for the real police to do their jobs.

    Some 45 years ago a friend an I were driving home from college when some clown pulls alongside us, and matches our speed. After a few irritating seconds of this fool, my buddy sped up to get away from him. Fool sped up until he was pacing us and matched our speed again. We sped up. Fool sped up. This happened several times. We finally got to a stop sign. We stop. Fool stops. Buddy punches out and off we roared down the road. Finally out distanced the dimwad.

    A few miles down the road, he caught up to us. He pulled alongside us on my side of the car. And as he angrily rolled his window down, I turned to my buddy and said laughingly, “Our friend is back.” When i looked back at him, the sonofa***** was holding a pistol. I yelled “Rick! He’s got a gun!” Rick didn’t wait. He just whipped the car around, then high-tailed it back in the other direction. A short distance down the road we saw a Dunkin’ Donuts store that was still open, so we turned into the parking lot. I jumped out and ran inside yelling for the clerk to “Call the cops! There’s someone chasing us with a gun!” I finally calmed down enough to realize I had to help my friend so I headed back outside. Only to discover that the fool chasing us WAS a cop. Several cars showed up at which time the police proceeded to arrest my friend. I pointed at the guy who had been chasing us and said, this guy pulled a gun on us.” “No I didn’t,” he replied. “I was showing you my badge.”

    In forty-five years, I’ve had dealings on numerous occasions with the police. Sometimes I’ve even been able to talk my way out of the speeding tickets. In that time, they have never been rude, or unprofessional. But I’ll always remember O’Neill. And I’ll always have my doubts about whether cops in these violent confrontations really felt their lives were in danger, or simply spooked someone to get the necessary reaction that allowed them to pull heat. Or even lied about the entire situation.

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