Civil Rights Coalition Calls Methamphetamine Sting Operation “Tulia Revisited”

Media 03.14.06

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), the nation’s oldest, largest, and most diverse civil and human rights coalition, is greatly troubled by reports of a methamphetamine drug sting operation in northwest Georgia known as “Operation Meth Merchant.” The program appears on its surface to be highly suspect, due to both the ethnic origin of most of the arrestees, as well as the weak evidence used to arrest them.

“Methamphetamine destroys innocent lives, but so does overzealous law enforcement,” said Wade Henderson, LCCR executive director. “What the civil rights community has learned about Operation Meth Merchant’ is incredibly troubling. Indeed, it seems strongly reminiscent of the infamous 1999 drug sting operation in Tulia, Texas, in which innocent lives were destroyed not by drugs themselves, but rather by overzealous and even racist law enforcement officials.”

In “Operation Meth Merchant,” nearly 50 convenience store owners and clerks, mostly South Asian immigrants with limited English proficiency, were arrested for selling common, normally-legal products such as cold medicine, matches, and antifreeze. Federal law prohibits the sale of these and other items if a retailer knows, or has reason to know, that the purchaser plans to use them to make methamphetamine. During the sting, a dozen informants – all of whom were convicted drug offenders and had been promised reduced sentences in return for their cooperation – purchased the items from various convenience stores in Georgia. In each case, the informants reportedly used drugrelated slang such as “I need to finish a cook” in front of the clerks while making the purchases, which formed the basis for the arrests.

“It makes no sense for authorities to presume that the average American, and especially a recent immigrant with limited English skills, would understand what terms like ‘a cook’ would mean in the context of methamphetamine,” Henderson continued. “Most people simply don’t – and shouldn’t – have any reason to know.”

“The government is defending ‘Operation Meth Merchant’ by arguing that several of the people arrested in the sting have already pled guilty. But as the nation learned in the case of Tulia, Texas, a guilty plea isn’t always synonymous with guilt. Many defendants in Tulia – all of whom were later pardoned – simply assumed it would be too risky to try to prove their innocence at trial, and cut deals instead. It should be obvious that the same thing is happening in Georgia right now.”

“Instead of making easy arrests and tearing apart immigrant communities, police and prosecutors need to go after the people who are genuinely contributing to the methamphetamine epidemic,” Henderson concluded.