Alabama law enforcement's big day was entirely meaningless for the state

Other states may be legalizing pot and gay marriage, but last Tuesday should have squandered any suspicion that Alabama could be nudged by the progressive trend. In one day, law enforcement officers in a state borrowing money from its trust fund just to stay afloat suddenly found the resources to raid a casino, sue an Indian tribe and arrest 61 college students for marijuana.

It began early in the morning, when the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force, which itself is being investigated by the F.B.I. for improper accounting, started raiding dorm rooms like it was SEAL Team 6 in Abbottabad. Their target was no Osama bin Laden.

In a low point for the law enforcement profession everywhere, students interviewed in Wednesday’s Crimson White recounted scenes of officers showing up outside Honors residential communities with guns and bulletproof vests.

They arrested 61 UA students and 13 other nonviolent offenders in the raids. Only 11 of those were charged with possession or sale of controlled substances; all of the others were detained for marijuana and paraphernalia.

Tuscaloosa police chief Steven Anderson boasted the raids were a “record.”

A record that could have easily been attained in any number of previous years had the Task Force decided to thoroughly investigate our student body. It’s not as if weed just started growing in Ridgecrest South.

After West Alabama Narcotics came under FBI investigation and its commander stepped down in the fall, though, agents sought redemption for the Task Force by going after easy targets.

Targets who pay taxes in Tuscaloosa, largely remain dependent on parents in distant communities and are vulnerable to police investigations precisely because they aren’t really criminals. They’re college students with pot.

They’re still breaking UA rules, and having drugs in dorms is especially reckless and irresponsible. Since I have been a student here, though, UAPD, housing administrators and Judicial Affairs have routinely dealt with these low-level marijuana offenses.

There has never been a need for anonymous informants, warrants or raids. UA administrators have dealt with problems as they have appeared.

UA’s judicial system is a much more effective way to rectify a student’s behavior without disrupting his or her college experience than the criminal justice system, where these 61 students will be processed.

“We are still going to enforce the law, no matter how harmless people think it is,” Chief Anderson said after the raid. Enforce the law, regardless of public support for it, regardless of the costs, regardless of the effectiveness and regardless of the sacrifice doing so will inflict on other law enforcement priorities.

There is a litigious volume of laws to enforce and a limitless number of offenses to prosecute. However, there is a limited number of officers and prosecutors to handle criminal cases, and a limited number of parole offices and prison guards to administer sentences. Law enforcement isn’t a blind exercise; it requires targeting public resources to the most pressing threats. Priorities must be set. Trade-offs must be made.

Chief Anderson should explain why he has chosen suddenly to prioritize enforcement of marijuana laws over other laws, why he has chosen to focus enforcement efforts around the UA campus instead of other parts of Tuscaloosa and why he is spending public resources on violations that could be handled by UA’s judicial system.

He should also explain why it has decided to diverge from the increasing number of law enforcement authorities around the nation who are de-prioritizing marijuana laws.

Of course, Chief Anderson is not the only lawman in the state diverging from the national trend. Tuesday also brought another set of raids to the VictoryLand casino where officers seized hundreds of slot machines. At the same time, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange filed suit against the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, aiming to close the three casinos it operates.

Strange’s suit is meaningless: The state court he filed it in has no authority over the tribe. The tribe is recognized and regulated by the federal government, and will be regardless of what Alabama courts find. The case is intended only to make a political point about gambling and could cost both the state and tribe millions of dollars.

Arresting dozens of college students, seizing hundreds of slot machines and using a historically under-served Indian tribe for political posturing was a lot for law enforcement officials in Alabama to accomplish in one day. Too bad none of it was necessary.

Tray Smith is a senior majoring in political science and journalism. His column runs weekly.

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