Saturday, March 11, 2006

Catch and Release in Atlantic, Iowa?

An AP story in the March 10 Omaha World-Herald (Iowa edition) comes right from the pages of a Cheech and Chong movie.

Sheriff's deputies in Atlantic, Iowa (in Cass County, about one hour east of Omaha), detained two men after receiving reports about erratic driving. Both were Mexican immigrants. Not only were they in violation of immigration laws, they violated a few more as well. The men had open containers of alcohol (illegal in Iowa), and they were intoxicated. A search of their van produced 95 pounds of marijuana.

For those unfamiliar with the Midwest, Interstate 80 runs across Iowa and Nebraska. This important travel route has also become a trade route for drugs. Traffic stops often involve canine units, which lead to drug discoveries and arrests. However, this time the deputies apparently had no problem in ferreting out the drugs. I don't know much about marijuana, but comparing this to a leafy herb I do know about -- alfalfa -- I visualize 95 pounds of hay taking up most of the back seat. So this was probably not too difficult to find.

You are probably thinking so what - these guys will be in jail next, right? Not so. They let the men go. You see, the deputies noticed the men had numerous cuts and bruises. The county was concerned that if they were treated at a local hospital, it would have to bear medical costs. They called the INS, which was apparently not interested in them after they looked up the men's criminal history and found no previous violations. An INS official is reported as saying "[W]e usually focus on criminals."

This story is disturbing at many levels. First, there is the matter of valuing human life. As illegal immigrants, these men were probably afraid to go to the hospital emergency room, where they would have been treated regardless of their ability to pay. The requirement for the county to pay does create a budgetary issue, but one wonders how this could become outcome determinative in a case of this nature. If it was a matter of cuts and bruises only, the medical bills could not have been that extravagant. If it was more than this, the sherrif is saying that these lives are not worth much. In either case, this answer seems unjustifiable. (I also wonder where did the cuts and bruises come from? Will there be some people in a van somewere else along I-80 who are now dead or injured? And are they missing some marijuana?)

Second, when valuing human life, this includes the lives of others. There are huge public safey issues here. Releasing guys who get in fights, drink and drive, and haul drugs around may not be very healthy for the rest of the good people driving through Iowa. The story doesn't say how long these guys were detained, but hopefully it was long enough to sober up. But that may only last until the next town where they celebrate their narrow escape with a few beers and some new weed.

Third, what messages does this send? The sheriff's office is probably overburdened and may view this problem as one that can be passed along to the next town or the next county down the Interstate. I'm sure they did not intend to send a message to Atlantic residents that drinking and driving and hauling drugs are ok. However, their choice was backed up by INS, who would not help out here.

The problem here, in addition to probable misjudgments, involves the diffusion of law enforcement costs. In one sense, this is an old problem. A common remedy in olden times was to run the petty criminal out of town. But these do not sound like petty crimes. This problem will not easily be solved.


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