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Editor’s note: This column marks the beginning of an occasional
series, ‘Death on Arrival,’ documenting lethal abuses in America’s war
on drugs.

Many people won’t shed a single tear for Juan Mendoza Fernandez.
After all, when the police stormed the 60-year-old’s house last Thursday
night, they came away with almost a pound of meth, an ounce of cocaine
and a tad more than 5 grams of marijuana.

“They are pumping the drugs into the city of Irving (Texas),” said
one officer of Fernandez and other members of the family, “and we are
going to do everything possible to stop it.”

Including introducing Juan to the hereafter.

As the Sept. 30 Dallas Morning News tells it, while Juan and his
64-year-old wife, Josefina, were watching Spanish-language TV near
midnight Sept. 28, they heard an explosion, which they assumed had
something to do with a drive-by shooting. They should be so lucky.

Actually, it was a grenade, tossed by police at the front of the
house to lure residents away from the back — a dangerous place from
which to flush folks during a drug raid. “Open the door!” yelled men
from the outside, said Juan’s 11-year-old granddaughter who was startled
from sleep by the ruckus.

“They were screaming and banging on the door,” Josefina told a
reporter in Spanish, “we thought they wanted to come in and kill us.”

Juan bolted to the rear of the house to protect his frightened
granddaughter, according to the accounts of Josefina and the girl,
huddling over her to shield her from gunfire.

Once police had entered the house, officers detained Josefina in the
living room and headed to the rear of the house where they confronted
Juan and the granddaughter. Police say that Juan leveled a
large-caliber handgun at them — an action which was answered by
gunfire. According to the police account, the lead officer fired at
Juan, who fell but continued to point the firearm. The lead officer and
a second officer shot Juan again.

“When he turned around, they shot him,” said the granddaughter while
hugging her mother the day following the raid. “Then they got down and
shot him, I think, four more times.”

The family contends that at the time of the raid Juan was unarmed, a
claim that, for purposes of justifying the shooting, may be relevant to
some but is, in some sense, of little concern. Even if Juan were armed,
as police claim, few people could blame him for it.

“We didn’t know it was the police,” said Josefina, thinking the men
banging on the door were robbers. According to family members, neither
Juan nor his wife are fluent in English (Josefina speaks none at all),
and — even though officers announced themselves and wore clothing
identifying them as police — the couple did not understand what was
going on.

These sorts of raids “are a bad idea at early hours or late at
night,” said Timothy Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on
Criminal Justice. Given the time of day, “People are startled, which
increases the chances of misunderstanding and violence.” While
“startled” might be a tame word — “terrified” might work better — that
is especially true if the suspects speak little or no English and have a
child in the house.

Of course, if police are correct in charging that Juan was selling
drugs, no doubt he brought this danger upon himself and his family, as
such risk would be known to anyone dealing in illicit drugs. The
question is, does that justify the raid?

A narcotics team surveilled the Fernandez home before Juan arrived at
about 11:20 p.m. Why, someone might ask, couldn’t they have arrested
him upon arrival — where family members wouldn’t be placed in danger –
and served the search warrants after neutralizing Juan? Instead of this or
some similar tactic, they busted into the house, a high-risk situation
for all involved, and literally neutralized Juan.

While some will no doubt respond by saying Juan was a drug dealer and
knew the risks of the trade, Lynch counters by saying, “Even with
someone who is a drug dealer or user, caught up in the raid, we have
higher expectations of how the police conduct themselves in these
situations.”

The fact that the granddaughter was present should have been enough
of a “yield” sign for officers to pull back and try it another day.
What if she had been wounded or killed in the gunfight? The family of
11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda of Modesto, Calif., can well attest to
this danger. A Modesto SWAT officer shot Alberto dead during a Sept. 13 raid targeting
his father; the case is currently under investigation by the state attorney
general.

“With a nighttime raid at that hour and with this language barrier,
it just sounds like an awful operation from the word ‘go,’” observed
Lynch, adding that “Most people will recognize certain circumstances
where no-knock raids are necessary … but it is the government that has
to justify this sort of military-style raid; it is not the homeowner.”

Why were police gung-ho with a wife and child in the house,
especially considering the language problem? Didn’t they know about the
child and the language barrier? If not, why? What ever happened to
proper investigation before conducting an operation as dangerous as a
drug raid? And why a raid that night at all; couldn’t police have
waited for a better, lower-risk opportunity? Was nabbing one old man
– who, if guilty, wasn’t even a big-time dealer — really worth
endangering his family, the officers involved and eventually killing the
suspect?

None of this is to say that Juan Mendoza Fernandez was an innocent
man – just a wrongfully slain man. The police, no doubt, could have put
the raid off till better circumstances existed, or conducted his arrest
in a different manner. Instead, they forced a confrontation that shoved
Juan in to the position of defending his property and family from armed
men he most likely did not even know were police. Were the officers
involved justified in killing Juan; if he was armed as the police claim,
yes. But police shoulder some responsibility for forcing the
confrontation in the first place.

As bad and dangerous as drugs may be, police are proving more and
more every day that the measures used to stamp them out are worse by
far.


If you have any stories or information about drug-war victims,
feel free to

forward them to Joel
Miller.


Related items:


“The problem with drug raids”

No-knock raids violate the Fourth Amendment and endanger liberty.


“Subtracting the 4th Amendment, part I”

Drug-courier profiles and the assault on the Bill of Rights.


“Subtracting the 4th Amendment, part II”

Police search-and-seizure tactics endanger American liberty and ransack the Bill of Rights.

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