Monthly Archives: May 2010

New Cell Phone Law Could Shoulder Unintended Consequences

The day police can instantly write $124 tickets for drivers talking on cell phones is rapidly approaching. But like any change in law, it may have its share of unintended effects.

One such possible outcome that worries state troopers is that people will pack the shoulders of highways, pulling off to take a phone call. That’s dangerous, says Krista Hedstrom, spokeswoman for the local Washington State Patrol district.

“It’s a huge hazard when cars are whizzing by at 60 mph,” she said.

Those that do stop may just get a parking ticket for doing so because the risk is so great, Hedstrom said.

She encourages people to find a parking lot or area that is not mere feet from high speed lanes of traffic. Or better yet, check out the deals on hands-free devices so you can keep talking while en route.

Five Things You Might Not Know About WestNET

The West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team — WestNET for short — often emerges briefly from complex drug investigations with a story of arrests and prosecutions. But most of its work is done in the depths of the drug trade, following up tips, working with informants and going up the supply chain to bigger criminal enterprises.

But what do we know about our local drug task force? Here are five things about this cadre of detectives you might not know. Many of these questions are ones I often get from readers. The answers come directly from detectives on the task force.

How are they funded? Yes, they do get federal money. But local agencies also pay to send their personnel to work there. The Bremerton Police Department, Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office and others make up the seven detectives in the unit. Its sergeant is Carlos Rodriguez, who comes from the Washington State Patrol.

Is any medical marijuana user safe from them? WestNET’s busts of people who have medical marijuana cards from a doctor have made the news recently and frequently. But are there those with cards whom they ignore? Rodriguez says yes. They look to the state’s rule of a maximum of 15 plants and 24 ounces of pot for medical users. He said they leave those within that rule alone, unless there’s evidence of trafficking or selling. In cases where there are more than 15 plants or 24 ounces, he said they take the plants or product over limit, leave the rest and then forward a report to the appropriate prosecutor’s office for review.

How many of WestNET’s cases involve those who have medical marijuana recommendations? Rodriguez said that in 2009, 20 of their 57 marijuana grow investigations claimed to use pot for medical purposes. This year, five of 13 have said the same.

Does WestNET investigate anything besides marijuana? Yes. They have mobility to move up the ladder of sellers of drugs of any kind. Because they are a small unit, a big case can often skew their stats. For instance, one such investigation took the amount of club drugs they confiscated in 2008 to 2009 from 281 doses to 27,500.

What’s a breakdown of the amount of drugs the task force took in 2009? According to Rodriguez:

Marijuana: about 3,500 plants in 57 cases;

Cocaine: 37.6 grams in five cases;

Club drugs and doses: 27,500 in five cases;

OxyContin and other prescription drugs: 2,350 grams in 11 cases;

Meth: Almost 2,000 grams in 22 cases;

Heroin: About 310 grams in five cases.

Everyone’s Saying the ‘Barefoot Bandit’ Beached a Boat in Kitsap (Everyone on TV, That Is)

There’s no physical evidence that a notorious teen accused of slews of thefts has beached a boat off the shores of Eglon. But you wouldn’t know that after a quick look at the region’s TV networks’ web sites.

KIRO asked: “Has ‘Barefoot Bandit’ Struck Again?” KING wondered: “Is infamous teen burglar Colton Harris-Moore on the prowl in Kitsap County?” KOMO led with this: “Whidbey Island boat theft work of Colton Harris-Moore?

They’re certainly asking a question in each story, but no one yet knows the answer. As Kitsap County Sheriff’s spokesman Scott Wilson told me today, they don’t know if it’s him and they don’t know if it isn’t. That’s because they don’t know who the thief is at all.

We may well find out this is the work of this enigmatic 19-year-old. For now, we don’t know. If you’re concerned, the best thing to do is exercise some common sense caution we’ve discussed at length on this blog: lock your doors, keep your valuables secured and keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

Does Poll Provide Peek into Voters’ Views on Pot?

The Washington Poll, which fancies itself as non-partisan, academic survey, published a litany of results on political issues facing Washingtonians on Monday. One in particular caught my eye: 52 percent of their 1,252 voters surveyed said they were for “removing state civil and criminal penalties for possession or use of marijuana.”

Initiative 1068 would do just that, and its organizers have been busy getting signatures in Kitsap and beyond. Sensible Washington, the group behind it, says it wants to get 320,000 signatures by July to put it on the November ballot.

Passage of such an initiative — which has counterparts in Oregon and California — would be quite the policy change. But it would pit our state against the federal government, which expressly bans marijuana sale and use of any kind. I’m curious as to what that showdown would look like.

For now, we are left to wonder. But feel free to leave your own views here: what would happen if state law was to legalize pot, yet federal law still said no to it altogether?

Tracking the Homicide: How Police Investigate the Most Serious of Crimes

Kitsap County’s local detectives are acutely aware they’re on the clock when called to the scene of a mysterious death.

“If you haven’t ID’d a suspect in the first 72 hours, the chances of solving a case dramatically decrease,” said Bremerton Detective Sgt. Kevin Crane.

I interviewed Crane and other investigators for Sunday’s story and database about Kitsap’s cold cases. We used the information I gathered for a graphic in the paper, but I wanted to go into greater detail. Here’s what I learned.

Day or night, Crane, and other detective supervisors are on call for the city’s most serious crimes. He’s ended vacations early to get to the scene of a fresh and suspicious death.

Homicide investigations most often start with the line officer who’s responding to a 911 call. If the victim is alive, the priority is saving a life. But if deceased, with no hope of resuscitation, the scene is “frozen” — no one comes and goes without police permission and a log is kept of those who do — and crime scene tape secures its perimeter, Crane said.

Detectives arrive and are briefed by patrol officers. Two crime scene investigators begin from the perimeter of the scene and moving inward, documenting with video and camera and looking for anything out of the ordinary. Yellow markers are placed at any point — shell casings, clothing, blood spatter, for instance — they see as suspicious. Every piece of evidence is eventually sealed and and placed in evidence at the police department. The name and date of each person who examines it is kept in a log.

Investigating the body won’t begin until the scene is “processed” by the crime scene investigators. At that point, detectives, who manage the crime, bring in the Kitsap County coroner’s office, which manage the body. They investigate it together, Crane said.

The wound or wounds are examined, photographed and measured. Investigators look for “defensive” wounds that would indicate a struggle.

A critical task is identifying the deceased. Seemingly simple, it’s not always apparent and may require investigating in its own right. Perhaps they’re not carrying ID, or more gruesomely, they can’t be identified because of a fire.

Meanwhile, at least two detectives is busy with interviews, talking with those who may have witnessed the crime or the area around it.

They’ll also set out to canvass the neighborhood, attempting to find anyone who heard or saw anything.

While technology has rapidly advanced in homicide investigations, there’s one way they haven’t changed.

“It’s people,” Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office Chief of Detectives Dave White said. “We’re still talking to people.”

Detectives will ask if the witnesses knew the deceased, and begin to establish a so-called “victimology.” Detectives will seek to paint a picture of the victim working backwards from their moment of death. Where did they go? Why were they there? And of course, who were they with?

“These can be very long, tedious investigations,” Crane said.

At various points during the investigation, detectives stop and exchange information. Crane then compiles a new task list.

From there, it’s a matter of chasing down leads. All day and all night they work, stopping sometimes for a few hours’ sleep in those first critical three days.

Investigating a homicide is really no different than any other crime, only “they’re more tedious and you leave no stone unturned,” Crane said.

Unsolved Homicide Tidbits

As part of our Sunday special report on unsolved homicides, Scripps Howard News Service provided us a number of fascinating facts and figures about such cases. Among them:

*A survey of 1,001 adults interviewed by telephone from Feb. 3 to March 9 by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found that at least one adult in nine personally knew the victim of an unsolved homicide. Adults who do not personally know murder victims are much more likely to praise police than those who do, especially those who knew victims of unsolved crimes. The telephone survey was sponsored through a grant by the Scripps Howard Foundation. It has a 4 percent margin of error.

* Every year in America, 6,000 killers get away with murder. The percentage of homicides that go unsolved in the United States has risen alarmingly even as the homicide rate has fallen to levels last seen in the 1960s. National clearance rates for murder and manslaughter have fallen from about 90 percent in the 1960s to below 65 percent in recent years.

* Experts say that homicides are tougher to solve now because crimes of passion, where assailants are easier to identify, have been replaced by drug- and gang-related killings. Many police chiefs — especially in areas with rising numbers of unsolved crimes — blame a lack of witness cooperation.

*The deliberate killings of men, members of racial and ethnic minorities and young adults are much less likely to be solved than other kinds of homicides, according to a Scripps Howard News Service analysis of detailed FBI computer files of more than half a million homicides committed from 1980 to 2008.

*The study found that, for much the same reasons, police identify the killer 90 percent of the time in the homicides of children and infants under the age of 5. These killings often involve family members or close friends. The lowest identification rate of killers (68 percent) is among the homicides of young adults between 20 and 24 years of age. The killer is identified by police about 67 percent of the time when the victim is black or Hispanic, and only 64 percent for black victims between 20 and 24 years old. But when the victim is a non-Hispanic white person of any age, a suspect is identified 78 percent of the time.

*According to the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report — in which police are asked if they can identify the killer rather than if they’ve made an arrest — 98 percent of all homicides involving a lover’s triangle or other lover’s quarrels are solved. About 95 percent of all homicides that erupted from an emotional argument over money are also solved. Also easily identified are the killers who take human life during an alcohol- or drug-influenced “brawl” — the term FBI statisticians used for a fatal fight regardless of the kind of weapons used. Police identify the offender in about 90 percent of these homicides. But solution rates quickly drop when human passion is not the cause.

Some techniques that helped departments improve their clearance rates:

* Make sure there is sufficient manpower at the crime scene, especially during the first minutes after the discovery of a killing. The latest Justice Department recommendations suggest that a minimum of two, two-person teams be sent to the scene as quickly as possible. Large police departments that regularly send eight or 10 experienced investigators to the scene have produced above-average clearance results.

* Make sure investigators get the time needed to solve murders. Don’t be stingy with overtime, especially when investigators are in hot pursuit of evidence. Departments that allow senior detectives to approve their own overtime have a 9 percent higher clearance rate, according to FBI data.

*Be generous with training. Make sure investigators know the current best practices through so-called “in-service” training rather than assuming they learned everything at the police academy.

*Utilize new evidence technology. DNA matching of blood or almost any other physical evidence from an assailant’s body is a powerful tool. But so are less prominent techniques such as voice-stress analysis and statement analysis, blood-stain-pattern analysis and criminal investigative analysis also known as profiling.

Kitsap’s Unsolved Homicides: Will Justice Ever Come?

From 1960 to 2010 there have been at least 29 people murdered in Kitsap County whose killers were never brought to justice.

Behind the scenes, some of us at the Kitsap Sun have been hard at work compiling a database of these unsolved crimes. We’ve done so, if nothing else, for posterity’s sake. But we also harbor a hope that perhaps someday, these crimes could be solved, the culprits brought to justice, and the families of the victims given a degree of solace in that apprehension.

We’ve listed the phone numbers of the law enforcement agencies handling these so-called “cold cases,” just in case someone out there knows something. Please browse the names and faces. You never know — it could help solve a homicide.

Click here for the database. And on Sunday, look for a special report on the unsolved homicides of Kitsap County.

Is the ‘War on Drugs’ Still Winnable?

Forty years. Hundreds of thousands of lives. Around $1 trillion dollars. The AP says those are the costs of the so-called “War on Drugs” in America and wonders: was it worth it?

I wonder subsequently: can such a “war” be won in the future?

Martha Mendoza’s critique examines not only the past but what the Obama Administration plans to do with a record $15 billion-plus budget to fight drugs. There’ll be more emphasis on prevention and treatment, says U.S. drug czar and former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske.

I’d suggest reading the piece for yourself. But here’s the thrust of the story, which presents the drug war as a frustrating stalemate:

“In 1970, proponents said beefed-up law enforcement could effectively seal the southern U.S. border and stop drugs from coming in. Since then, the U.S. used patrols, checkpoints, sniffer dogs, cameras, motion detectors, heat sensors, drone aircraft — and even put up more than 1,000 miles of steel beam, concrete walls and heavy mesh stretching from California to Texas.

None of that has stopped the drugs. The Office of National Drug Control Policy says about 330 tons of cocaine, 20 tons of heroin and 110 tons of methamphetamine are sold in the United States every year — almost all of it brought in across the borders. Even more marijuana is sold, but it’s hard to know how much of that is grown domestically, including vast fields run by Mexican drug cartels in U.S. national parks.”

It’s of course impossible to say what would have happened if our government hadn’t spent that money. But if nothing else, we know a lot more about drug trafficking and addiction than we did when President Nixon began the fight.

I’ll leave you with the same question: is the drug war still winnable? And if so, how?

Drug Court Graduate: ‘The Real Test is To Keep Rising’

A new piece of artwork at the Kitsap County Juvenile Department particularly struck me. Its creator is a graduate of the Individualized Treatment Court, which I was at the complex to write about. I wanted to share it, along with its artist’s commentary. The teen behind it shall remain nameless, unless he ever chooses to reveal himself.

Here’s his commentary, which is a powerful portrait of recovery:

“This is Not a drawing.

This is a Representation of how I rose from the ashes. How I walked away from a destructive path I led. I caused pain not only to myself but to my loved ones. A Phoenix rises again as I did and represents my fiery passion to change; to become anew. The Rising flames represent my metamorphosis; my becoming the Phoenix. Of equal importance to becoming the Phoenix is the past I left: the past I look back to learn from is nothing more than ashes in the wake. In the ashes you’ll see a car door and a muffler representing my near-death experience from being negligent while in control of a vehicle. I survived but my truck did not follow the same fate. The razor blade represents my experiences with cocaine as does the pope represent my experiences with pot. The Handcuffs represent the obvious arrests and being incarcerated in and out of jail over a good portion of my life.

Individualized Treatment Court really helped me deal with some serious issues I had in my life. I did not see my problems or how unhealthy I was and had much to learn. Just because I have risen from where I once was does not mean I am done; in reality it has just begun. It took my a long time to get where I am and so easily it can all be taken away due to something of my influence or course of action. The real test is not to rise from the ashes or stay risen. The real test is to keep rising and keep growing and eventually teach others what lessons I have learned. That is the true gift of knowledge.”

Read more about problem solving courts here.

Supreme Court: Sex Offenders Can Be Held Indefinitely

The US Supreme Court has upheld a 2006 law that allows for the federal government to imprison sex offenders beyond their sentences if they’re deemed “sexually dangerous.

Sound familiar? That’s because Washington was the vanguard in sex offender confinement with its passage of the Community Protection Act of 1990. That state law, along with creating a registration and community notification system for sex offenders, also set the stage for the state’s Special Confinement Center on McNeil Island — a place that holds those deemed “sexual violent predators,” indefinitely after they serve their prison time.

From what I’ve read, there isn’t that much different about the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act and Washington state’s law. The federal Walsh Act allows a judge to determine if a person should be held past their sentence; our state law allows for a kind of jury trial to determine if they should be confined indefinitely.

But I think the US Supreme Court’s overwhelming 7-2 decision puts more weight behind the Washington state law.

Here’s part of the decision, courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor:

“The statute is a ‘necessary and proper’ means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned, and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned but who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others,” Justice (Stephen) Breyer wrote.

But here’s what I see as the most important aspect. Like Washington state’s law, it seemed Breyer — and U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, a supreme court nominee who argued the government’s position — believe sex offenders are as great a risk to public health as a disease outbreak.

From the Washington Post:

Kagan in January compared the government’s power to commit sexual predators to its power to quarantine federal inmates whose sentences have expired but have a highly contagious and deadly disease.

“Would anybody say that the federal government would not have Article I power to effect that kind of public safety measure? And the exact same thing is true here. This is exactly what Congress is doing here,” she said.

But not so fast, wrote Clarence Thomas, whose overarching fear seemed to be the idea of a national police force — an overreach by the federal government in his mind. From the Monitor:

“Protecting society from violent sexual offenders is certainly an important end,” Thomas wrote. “But the Constitution does not vest in Congress the authority to protect society from every bad act that might befall it.”