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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Ross Rambles: Making Judgement Calls

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A couple of weeks ago, we discovered through other publications that among 21 people charged with drug offenses by the Storm Lake Police Department, two were Cherokee residents.

We don't always find out about Cherokee County residents charged in other counties, so such charges are usually not mentioned in the Chronicle Times. When we do learn about an out-of-county arrest of a local citizen, the decision on whether to publish it depends on several factors, the most important being the seriousness of the charge.

With some exceptions, an aggravated misdemeanor is the minimum level of seriousness needed to get us to follow up when we hear of a local person charged in another county. An aggravated misdemeanor is between a serious misdemeanor and a class D felony, and generally involves some period of jail time.

The two Cherokee County residents arrested in Buena Vista County were charged with serious misdemeanor possession of marijuana, indicating less than an ounce and no established intent to sell.

It could be argued that a mass drug arrest in another county involving Cherokee County residents should qualify as an exception to the aggravated-misdemeanor-minimum rule of thumb. The reason some might feel that this is big news justifying our covering it is the same reason I didn't want to cover it.

If we had printed the article, it would be printed in the standard way - a straight presentation of the facts provided by the Storm Lake Police Department, with most people drawing the seemingly obvious conclusion that law enforcement broke up a drug ring of at least 21 people.

Some of those arrested were charged with felonies involving sale or possession for sale of marijuana, meth or both. There were others, including the two from Cherokee, who appeared to simply be customers.

Those arrested for felonies may or may not have had a business relationship with each other. Generally, rural Iowa does not have what you'd call drug rings. Drug dealers tend to be independent operators, rarely having multiple suppliers or multiple partners.

There are three reasons why drug charges are filed simultaneously against people, even when there is no connection or limited connection between those arrested.

One is that once arrests are made, an undercover operation becomes exposed, so arrests need to wait until all area investigations are complete. Another reason is that charges are filed only after results come back from the state drug testing lab. This can take months and the results from an extended period come back all at once for a specific law enforcement agency.

Another reason is that it just looks more impressive to charge many people at once. Police don't try to dispel the illusion that a big drug ring has been broken up and neither do newspapers. This is understandable, given the frustrations of waging a never ending war on drugs.

Years ago, the misleading hype about drug busts was even worse, at least in the part of the state where I was living at the time.

I remember watching local news on television and seeing the occasional patch of marijuana plants being eradicated by law enforcement officials. I was amused at the estimated "street value" given for the marijuana destroyed. As near as I could tell, all the plants were weighed and the entire pre-dried weight (including stalks, stems and maybe dirt clods) was divided by the weight of the marijuana in a single joint and this figure was multiplied by the price of a single joint of top quality marijuana sold in New York City to come up with a ridiculous "street value" figure.

In many cases the actual street value was zero, since more often than not, this was wild marijuana, so low in THC (the intoxicant in marijuana) as to be worthless.

Another factor that could affect whether we publish a police report from out of county is who the arrested person is. Rather than giving a break to someone of importance in the community, like some people suspect we try to do, it works just the opposite. The more important the person is, the more prominently the arrest is reported.

Some years back, a Cherokee police officer was caught shoplifting. (This is a bit off subject since the shoplifting occurred in Cherokee but how we handled it illustrates my point.)

The arrest report of the simple misdemeanor was put on the front page rather than put in standard police report format on page 2 or 3.

I believe this was justified. Whenever a law enforcement officer is hired, we print a positive front page personal profile of the officer, something we don't do for someone who, for example, works for the city water department or for the county road crew. The flip side of the hero treatment for law enforcement officers is getting more attention than wanted when the hero image is not lived up to.

About 15 years ago, a high school teacher in Cherokee was arrested for solicitation of a prostitute in Storm Lake. He subsequently resigned. I don't believe he lives in the area now.

After a cursory search on the Internet in preparation for this column, I was unable to find out whether solicitation of a prostitute is a simple or serious misdemeanor but I'm fairly certain it is not aggravated.

It is distasteful having a teacher charged for such a crime but I'm not sure the arrest deserved the front page treatment it got.

Leaving his profession out of the article was regarded as mitigating the harshness, but for those who didn't know the teacher, the unanswered question remained of why a misdemeanor arrest in Storm Lake was reported on the front page.

There are sometimes judgment calls to be made in reporting arrests.