PHOENIX — Border Patrol agents pursue smugglers one moment and sit around in boredom the next. It was during one of the lulls that Bryan Gonzalez, a young agent, made some comments to a colleague that cost him his career
Stationed in Deming, N.M., Mr. Gonzalez was in his green-and-white Border Patrol vehicle just a few feet from the international boundary when he pulled up next to a fellow agent to chat about the frustrations of the job. If marijuana were legalized, Mr. Gonzalez acknowledges saying, the drug-related violence across the border in Mexico would cease. He then brought up an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition that favors ending the war on drugs.
Those remarks, along with others expressing sympathy for illegal immigrants from Mexico, were passed along to the Border Patrol headquarters in Washington. After an investigation, a termination letter arrived that said Mr. Gonzalez held “personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps.”
After his dismissal, Mr. Gonzalez joined a group even more exclusive than the Border Patrol: law enforcement officials who have lost their jobs for questioning the war on drugs and are fighting back in the courts.
In Arizona, Joe Miller, a probation officer in Mohave County, near the California border, filed suit last month in Federal District Court after he was dismissed for adding his name to a letter by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which is based in Medford, Mass., and known as LEAP, expressing support for the decriminalization of marijuana.
“More and more members of the law enforcement community are speaking out against failed drug policies, and they don’t give up their right to share their insight and engage in this important debate simply because they receive government paychecks,” said Daniel Pochoda, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which is handling the Miller case.
Mr. Miller was one of 32 members of LEAP who signed the letter, which expressed support for a California ballot measure that failed last year that would have permitted recreational marijuana use. Most of the signers were retired members of law enforcement agencies, who can speak their minds without fear of action by their bosses. But Mr. Miller and a handful of others who were still on the job — including the district attorney for Humboldt County in California and the Oakland city attorney — signed, too.
LEAP has seen its membership increase significantly from the time it was founded in 2002 by five disillusioned officers. It now has an e-mail list of 48,000, and its members include 145 judges, prosecutors, police officers, prison guards and other law enforcement officials, most of them retired, who speak on the group’s behalf.
“No one wants to be fired and have to fight for their job in court,” said Neill Franklin, a retired police officer who is LEAP’s executive director. “So most officers are reluctant to sign on board. But we do have some brave souls.”
Mr. Miller was accused of not making clear that he was speaking for himself and not the probation department while advocating the decriminalization of cannabis. His lawsuit, though, points out that the letter he signed said at the bottom, “All agency affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.”
He was also accused of dishonesty for denying that he had given approval for his name to appear on the LEAP letter. In the lawsuit, Mr. Miller said that his wife had given approval without his knowledge, using his e-mail address, but that he had later supported her.
Kip Anderson, the court administrator for the Superior Court in Mohave County, said there was no desire to limit Mr. Miller’s political views.
“This isn’t about legalization,” Mr. Anderson said. “We’re not taking a stand on that. We just didn’t want people to think he was speaking on behalf of the probation department.”
Mr. Miller, who is also a retired police officer and Marine, lost an appeal of his dismissal before a hearing officer. But when his application for unemployment benefits was turned down, he appealed that and won. An administrative law judge found that Mr. Miller had not been dishonest with his bosses and that the disclaimer on the letter was sufficient.
In the case of Mr. Gonzalez, the fired Border Patrol agent, he had not joined LEAP but had expressed sympathy with the group’s cause. “It didn’t make sense to me why marijuana is illegal,” he said. “To see that thousands of people are dying, some of whom I know, makes you want to look for a change.”
Since his firing, Mr. Gonzalez, who filed suit in federal court in Texas in January, has worked as a construction worker, a bouncer and a yard worker. He has also gone back to school, where he is considering a law degree.
“I don’t want to work at a place that says I can’t think,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who grew up in El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad Juárez, which has experienced some of the worst bloodshed in Mexico.
The Justice Department, which is defending the Border Patrol, has sought to have the case thrown out. Mr. Gonzalez lost a discrimination complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sided with his supervisors’ view that they had lost trust that he would uphold the law.
Those challenging their dismissals are buoyed by the case of Jonathan Wender, who was fired as a police sergeant in Mountlake Terrace, Wash., in 2005, partly as a result of his support for the decriminalization of marijuana. Mr. Wender won a settlement of $815,000 as well as his old job back. But he retired from the department and took up teaching at the University of Washington, where one of his courses is “Drugs and Society.”
Among those not yet ready to publicly urge the legalization of drugs is a veteran Texas police officer who quietly supports LEAP and spoke on the condition that he not be identified. “We all know the drug war is a bad joke,” he said in a telephone interview. “But we also know that you’ll never get promoted if you’re seen as soft on drugs.”
Mr. Franklin, the LEAP official, said it was natural that those on the front lines of enforcing drug laws would have strong views on them, either way. It was the death of a colleague at the hands of a drug dealer in 2000 that prompted Mr. Franklin, a veteran officer, to begin questioning the nation’s drug policies. Some of his colleagues, though, hit the streets even more aggressively, he said.
Mr. Franklin said he got calls all the time from colleagues skeptical about the drug laws as they are written but unwilling to speak out — yet.
“I was speaking to a guy with the Maryland State Police this past Saturday, and he’s about to retire in January and he’s still reluctant to join us until he leaves,” Mr. Franklin said. “He wants to have a good last couple of months, without any hassle.”
By MARC LACEY
Published: December 2, 2011
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Police Officers Find That Dissent on Drug Laws May Come With a Price