Data supports San Francisco’s crackdown on fentanyl defenses

This story was produced in collaboration with the garrison projectan independent, non-partisan organization dealing with the crisis of mass incarceration and policing.

At the end of April, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared announced a massive mobilization of state and local law enforcement agencies to stop the large-scale fentanyl trade in San Francisco.

“Today’s partnership is not aimed at criminalizing those struggling with substance use, but instead focuses on holding drug suppliers and dealers accountable,” the governor’s office said of the partnership, which includes the California Highway Patrol, the California National Guard, the San Francisco Police Department, and the San Francisco Police Department are owned by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.

A few days later, in a press conference attended by Mayor London Breed and members of law enforcement, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins praised the partnership for an unusual reason. She said that “many of our drug trafficking defendants make use of the human trafficking defense” and that “considerable evidence on our part is required to refute that defense.”

Jenkins said she was “very excited about the prospect of having the additional resources to dispel the notion that people here are not dealing drugs of their own accord, because that’s clearly the case.”

Jenkins’ anger may have been fueled by two recent drug trafficking cases in which the jury heard the defendants – both Honduran immigrants – and their lawyers defend themselves on human trafficking charges. The accused explained that they were forced to sell drugs under the fear and coercion of criminal drug trafficking organizations and that they owed human smugglers known as coyotes substantial sums of money that they had to repay. The result of both trials was that the jury was empty and the defendants escaped without charge.

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But according to data provided to HuffPost by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, such cases are rare — in fact, they are exceptions to the rule — questioning one of Jenkins’ stated justifications for concentrating massive police operations on her city puts.

Brooke Jenkins was named San Francisco District Attorney last summer and was self-elected this fall.
Brooke Jenkins was named San Francisco District Attorney last summer and was self-elected this fall.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Since 2015, only 16 cases have been dealt with in which drugs were the most serious allegation. According to the San Francisco Attorney’s Office Data Dashboardbrought the office nearly 5,000 narcotics cases since 2015. So if about 16 out of 5,000 went to court during that period, that means all but 0.34% of narcotics cases ended in a settlement, dismissal, denial, or other resolution to resolve the case. In other words, there simply aren’t many cases where trafficking as a legal defense in court could have increased at all.

It is possible that objections to human trafficking were raised more frequently during appeal hearings. The district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment to clarify whether that was the case — nor did the office respond to questions about the data on drug cases and the number of cases in which defense attorneys had invoked a human trafficking defense .

Plea hearings allow prosecutors to devote limited resources to their cases; Trials are far more costly and resource intensive. According to the group, about 94% of state court convictions are the result of settlement agreements Fair and Equitable Law Enforcement. While it’s almost impossible to know how often defendants accused of fentanyl trafficking mount a pre-trial human trafficking defense, according to the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the defense has only been built in three narcotics cases that actually went to court came.

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Jenkins’ comments on human trafficking also suggest that such defenses are inherently fraudulent, which some experts found troubling.

“Prosecutors are supposed to form their own opinions about a person’s guilt or innocence, but that opinion doesn’t tell us what’s true or just — that’s the role a jury should play,” said Carissa Byrne Hessick, a law school professor the University of North Carolina. “Just because District Attorney Jenkins doesn’t believe someone doesn’t mean that person should go to jail. The crux of our constitutional system is that people outside of government — juries — are supposed to make those decisions.”

Defense attorneys were used in a case involving Honduran immigrants Thomas J Boerman, a Ph.D. He specializes in gang prevention and rehabilitation programs in the United States and Latin America and once wrote sections on Central American gangs and drug trafficking organizations for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Boerman testified that people from Central America are often lured to the United States with promises of legitimate jobs, only to find they sell drugs there.

Dean Preston, who represents the Tenderloin neighborhood as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, told HuffPost it’s not at all clear what new resources the interagency fentanyl task force has created.

“There’s a lot of drama, a lot of publicity stunts, and it’s very difficult to figure out what’s new,” Preston said. “It’s clear that the rhetoric against crime and the war on drugs is increasing, that’s clear.”

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