Man Calls Cops To Turn In Drug Paraphernalia He Found, Gets Home Placed On Federal 'Drug Lab' Watchlist For 2 Years

from the helping-out,-getting-hurt dept

“If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear,” right? Here’s how that works in reality. (via Reason)

On Jan. 5, 2012, Paul Valin called the police to report he’d found a backpack containing what he believed to be meth-making equipment. That simple act of good citizenship landed his and wife Cindy’s house on the National Clandestine Laboratory Register [NCLR], the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s list of meth labs.

Valin spotted a backpack in a river while kayaking. He took it home and opened it up looking for some identification that might point to its owner. Instead, he found tubing and chemicals. Being a good citizen (with nothing to hide), he called local law enforcement who came and removed the backpack… and then put him on a federal list that put his house in the same category as property where drugs had been seized (you know, as opposed to voluntarily and proactively given to police officers).

The NCLR’s website openly admits that no federal agency verifies the information being forwarded to it. Valin’s house was added to this list by local law enforcement, who filled out a standard form that failed to note that Valin had found the backpack and at no point had the “drug lab” ever crossed the threshold of his house (it had been in the back of Valin’s pickup the entire time).

Once Valin was made aware of his home’s placement on this list by a local TV reporter, he contacted the DEA in hopes of being delisted.

Valin sent an email to the DEA explaining the facts of his case and asking that his address be removed from the NCLR. The reply he received three weeks later was not encouraging.

An unsigned email from NCLR@doj.gov explained that Valin’s address had been listed because of a Clandestine Laboratory Seizure form the DMPD submitted to the DEA following the collection of the backpack.

According to the email, the DMPD officer who filled out the report had checked the boxes for “abandoned lab” and “boxed lab,” but didn’t include any other information, such as where and how Valin found the backpack.

The email also stated that the DEA was only the “caretaker” of the NCLR site and, again, pointed out that it doesn’t perform any sort of verification of submitted forms. According to the email, Valin had a couple of options: persuade the Des Moines, IA police department to contact the DEA and straighten out its paperwork error or have a local health agency declare his home free from drug contamination.

Unsurprisingly, the DEA’s suggestions were both dead ends.

The second option isn’t possible. No local or state health agencies in Iowa conducts such inspections. The state hasn’t even set any standards for what constitutes meth-related contamination.

Valin hasn’t had much luck with the first option, either. He’s still waiting for a reply to the voicemails he left at the DMPD phone number he was told to call.

The good news is that someone finally decided to do something about this error. Special Agent Eric Neubauer of the El Paso branch of the DEA took the Des Moines Police Dept. investigative report (which detailed the whole chain of events) provided to him by Iowa Watchdog and used that info to delist Valin’s home. The DMPD still hasn’t explained why the details on its internal investigative report failed to make their way onto the form sent to the DEA — an omission that put Valin’s home on a national “drug lab” watchlist for two years.

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Comments on “Man Calls Cops To Turn In Drug Paraphernalia He Found, Gets Home Placed On Federal 'Drug Lab' Watchlist For 2 Years”

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43 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Brilliantly played local PD...

Now every wanna-be drug maker or dealer in that area knows that even if they’re sloppy in hiding their actions, the locals won’t dare mention anything they may see or run across to the police, for fear of being accused and treated just like the actual drug makers/dealers.

Usually criminals have to threaten and/or bribe people to ensure their silence, they’ve got to be quite happy with the police doing their work for them like that.

Truly, those involved with the drug trade in that area must be running scared with such on on-the-ball police force like that. /s

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Brilliantly played local PD...

Your comments are insightful and accurate. But let me please add one more possibility onto them.

This also means that a quite effective way for drug dealers to intimidate citizens is to threaten to leave drug paraphernalia on their property and then notify the DMPD, who are clearly too stupid, lazy, sloppy and unprofessional to record events properly, let alone investigate them with any kind of thoroughness. A backpack, just like this one, tossed into the back up a pickup truck sitting in a driveway, just like this one, could easily do much more than just get someone on a list: it could get them actively prosecuted.

All thanks to the DMPD’s incompetence.

I’m sure that every drug dealer, con man, two-bit thug and minor criminal in the area is delighted that the DMPD is on their side.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

So there is this Federal List where people can’t challenge what is on it, and instead need to rely on the people who couldn’t be bothered to fill a simple form out right in the first place. The only way to get any action is to them publicly embarrass them and pray that he isn’t going to end up being “randomly” selected for all sorts of stops and investigations.
Where have I heard this before?

This is yet another half baked system that I am sure sounded awesome on paper, where the only people who would end up on it were hardened criminals… but in practice in the real world it manages to screw innocent people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It’s simple.

Every tool you provide to the police to catch criminals, will become the very tools they used against the innocent.

People have long forgotten why the founders created the Bill of Rights to begin with. The Vanguards of freedom are dead, and until new ones are born to stop it we shall continue this abusive slide into the abyss.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It is much simpler than that.
If we give those in power ANY tool, they will use them.
What is the point of the power of the tool if it is unused?
If we do not establish real safeguards to their use, then we have failed.

We are supposed to have safeguards, but have ignored them being undermined and re-purposed to allow for abuses. We are willfully blind to these things because we believe the lie they will never use them against us “Good People”(tm). Here we have yet another example of a “Good People”(tm) doing the right thing, and getting screwed. We wonder if apathy makes people no longer want to get involved, I think it is fear of the system targeting someone trying to do what is right.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Well said, but I do not believe it to be apathy. It is more of a cost/benefit analysis. Let me provide my thoughts as to how this works out.

Mr. Good works and earns 100k per year for his wife and 3 kiddos. He witnesses an illegal event. Does not matter if the offense was from the government thugs or non government thugs. Said thugs apply just enough pressure to keep him quite. They don’t even have to say anything because their reputation proceeds them and Mr. Good gets the idea. Shut up and keep looking and help your family not the person that got screwed because you might get the thugs negative attention on you.

Lets expand that to a more common theme… most honest hard working Americans do not have the time to spot check everything their crappy elected do.

Mr. Good in this scenario only makes 30k per year struggling to make end mean for his wife and 3 kids. He certainly cannot afford even a verifiable false claim from a corrupt police officer or government official.

People are under intense pressure to not buck the system and play by their dirty rules or else. We have to wait until enough good people are burned by it so that they are fed up enough to take action. Sadly one it reaches this point only bloodshed results, but evil wants it to be that bad to make good guys hesitate as much as humanly possible so that they can keep their power.

madasahatter (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Lists in theory are a good idea but the problem is lazy/incompetent/moronic/etc. idiots who are inputting the data into the system. What all these “systems” suffer from is the tendency for excessive false positives and false negatives – information that should not be entered and information that should be included. Compound this with the typical bureaucratic attitudes and you have situation that makes Franz Kafka look like a very naive optimist.

Sunhawk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

This, many times this. Any list of “people that’ve done/might do bad things” needs to have:

1) Clear criteria for how an individual is added to the list

This one is usually given some attention, but it mostly comes down to a lazy “someone with authority fills out this form”, which is not sufficient.

2) A straightforward process to remove an individual from the list.

“Wah,” some might cry, “that would mean a terrorist/meth maker/etc would be able to get themselves scott-free”. So? They’re going to find themselves on it again soon enough… and they’ve (as a possibility) sworn under penalty of perjury that one or more of the criteria is incorrect. That gives another felony charge to level at them.

3) A mechanism for someone to find out if they’re on the list.

Especially if being on the list measurably impacts the individual’s life. Making them unable to sell their home, for example, or being not permitted to fly.

4) Sufficient information attached to that entry of the list for someone to make the “on list/off list” decision again.

This is perhaps the most important, and should come with some random spot-checks on entries (if the list is large enough that one person can’t periodically validate them). Having an attached report (because surely someone’s life shouldn’t be able to be ruined by a form with a couple of check-boxes and a signature) allows the possessing agency to respond to challenges to the list efficiently.

zip says:

give 'em the ol' Richard Jewell treatment

There could be much more to this story. Paul Valin may have been under investigation, and if so, would probably never have known about it (at least until the investigation got to a more advanced state).

It’s far from a rare occurrence that “good samaritans” who contact the police end up as prime suspects. Just ask Richard Jewell about that.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I think the same way. Many years ago, I got burglarized. I didn’t report it to the cops because that’s a risky thing to do. You never know if you’ll get the good, competent cop who will handle things professionally, or if you’ll get the lazy, incompetent, and/or corrupt cop who will just make a bad situation worse.

Odds are that the burglars wouldn’t get caught anyway, and if they do, I probably wouldn’t get my stuff back, and so there’s little “reward” for the risk.

Instead, I beefed up my physical security.

zip says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

A few years ago I reported a car break-in, mainly as a service to the community. The cop who showed up showed little interest in a car break-in, yet insisted (rather rudely, I should point out) on knowing my entire life’s history. The only other time I got that kind of treatment was by a border guard. It’s like they were asking questions (rapid-fire style) just for the sake of asking questions.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Talking about it there are cases here where people tried to help others injured by cars (pedestrians) or by criminals that ended up being prosecuted as if they were the ones that caused the injures (either due to bad faith from the victims or due to bad law enforcement).

It’s rather common to see news of people that died because people didn’t stop to help at times where there’s less activity (less crowded streets) specially at night/dawn (not to mention in some cases the criminals themselves set up traps like this pretending to be injured and having some partner in hiding).

zip says:

Re: Re: "material witness" and related abuse

It’s often to people’s advantage to never talk to police, even when completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

The “material witness” statutes are routinely used here in the US as an excuse to jail innocent people indefinitely — without charge or access to the court system.

A common (and highly successful) method of trickery that police use to evade the 5th amendment is to pretend to ask people for help in solving a crime (whether real or made up), not telling them (or outright denying) that THEY are the prime suspects being investigated in that or some other crime.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In far too many cases(though for that any at all past none is ‘too many’), the only real difference is who’s got the badge.

Rather than helping one or the other though, you’d be better off just staying out of it, leave both sides to their own business, especially if trying to help the second will get you treated like the first, like in this case.

Lurker Keith says:

avoid leaving fingerprints

While I’m at certain stores, looking for items related to one of my hobbies, I, more often that I should, come across something that’s visibly either broken, missing parts or the wrong item (ie. someone swapped the contents & the employees are too stupid to notice) & I report them to Customer Service. I do my best not to leave fingerprints, just in case they call the police to investigate, due to the chance it could come back to haunt me.

A few times, I’ve seen the item already back on the shelf before I leave. *facepalm*

Sunhawk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I favor constant records, myself.

Heck, combine the two – I have a drone following me with a camera and a directional mic that streams the results to a remote server.

Heh… I had a thought. A shirt with the phrase “any verbal interaction may be monitored for quality assurance” on it. It’d be rather provoking, though; not the best of ideas.

However, it might fulfill any notification requirements for one-party consent recording…

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