Privacy SOS

80 year-old man held on marijuana trafficking charges busted after traffic stop—but is that really what happened?

 

An 80 year-old man who owns property throughout New England is facing drug trafficking and conspiracy charges related to allegations that he has been running a massive and illegal marijuana business. In addition to being an absurd waste of public resources, his prosecution raises disturbing questions about the trickle down of illegal spying from feds to local cops.

Marshall Dion’s latest round of legal troubles began in June 2013, when he was subjected to what the Boston Globe calls a “chance” traffic stop on a Kansas highway. “[A] police officer pulled him over for driving 80 in a 75 m.p.h. zone,” the Globe reports. “During the stop, the officer searched Dion’s beat-up pickup truck and found nearly $850,000 in cash.”

But was this really an unfortunate “chance” encounter, or something else entirely?

Dion is challenging the constitutionality of the traffic stop in federal appeals court. He says that two core government claims are false: first that he was speeding, and second that he consented to a search of his car.

“There’s no way the officer could have known if I was speeding, even if I was, which I wasn’t,” Dion said. “There’s no way I would have agreed to a search of my property.”

This incident raises serious questions.

Was this a chance encounter? Did this Kansas law enforcement officer get lucky when he pulled Dion over? Did he have some sort of sixth cop sense that told him to search Dion’s car, where he would discover nearly a million dollars cash? Or is there something more nefarious going on?

A few years ago, a police department in the northwest United States released a powerpoint presentation to a public records requester describing a surveillance program called “Operation Hemisphere.” Under this program, the Drug Enforcement Administration can access 26 years of Americans’ phone records from its partner AT&T. In order to protect the formerly secret program from public disclosure and legal review, the DEA instructed its agents and state and local law enforcement partners to obscure the original source of the intelligence against a suspect by creating a fake evidence chain, a process called “parallel construction.” This law enforcement tactic enables cops and feds to criminally prosecute people who have been subjected to unconstitutional surveillance. In short, parallel construction is evidence laundering.

A fed who has worked with the DEA on these illegal operations described the process to a Reuters reporter:

A former federal agent in the northeastern United States who received such tips from [DEA’s Special Operations Division] described the process. “You’d be told only, ‘Be at a certain truck stop at a certain time and look for a certain vehicle.’ And so we’d alert the state police to find an excuse to stop that vehicle, and then have a drug dog search it,” the agent said.

After an arrest was made, agents then pretended that their investigation began with the traffic stop, not with the SOD tip, the former agent said. The training document reviewed by Reuters refers to this process as “parallel construction.”

Could this be what happened to Mr. Dion? It sure sounds like it! Or maybe that cop just got really, really lucky?

Nah.

Last spring, Edward Snowden spoke with a small group of tech leaders at SXSW. I was lucky to be in the room. Among the things Snowden discussed was the danger of warrantless electronic monitoring trickling down into routine state and local police work. Operation Hemisphere and parallel construction are great examples of that grave threat having become a pernicious reality.

Let’s hope Mr. Dion’s constitutional appeal reveals more information about what really happened. It’s hard to believe that this major bust really started with a chance traffic encounter. And it’s disturbing that in an ostensibly free society we have such good reason to wonder.

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.