Another Drug War Casualty

November 30, 1998 • Commentary

The next time a politician says the government needs to take a “tougher stand against drugs,” we ought to pause and think about what happened to Pedro Oregon Navarro. Last summer six Houston police officers barged into Oregon’s home and shot him to death. The police thought they were raiding the home of a drug dealer, but they were mistaken. Oregon had nothing whatever to do with the drug trade. His death has shaken the Latino community in Houston, and Mayor Lee Brown has just asked Attorney General Reno to launch a federal investigation.

It all began when two police officers pulled over a car occupied by three young men. One of the occupants was placed under arrest for public intoxication. Now in serious trouble because he was already on probation for a previous drug offense, the street‐​wise arrestee thought fast. He told the officers that he would give them the name and address of a drug dealer if they would just let him go. The cops agreed. The drunk told them a bunch of lies and gave them Oregon’s address.

As members of a special “anti‐​gang task force,” you would think the officers would have been trained in good police work. But they did no investigation. In fact, they didn’t even try to corroborate the information they’d been given. Instead, they called for more officers — then set out for Oregon’s address.

Six members of the task force arrived at Oregon’s apartment at 1:40 a.m. Once the cops were in position, the so‐​called informant knocked on the door. When Oregon’s brother‐​in‐​law opened the door, the police rushed in. Oregon, who’d been asleep for several hours, heard the ruckus and grabbed a handgun he kept in his bedroom. It was all over in just a few moments. The police kicked in his bedroom door and bullets started flying. Oregon was shot 12 times. His own gun was never fired. Naturally, the cops claim they had to shoot in self‐​defense.

Dangerous as drugs may be to those who use them, that danger pales in comparison with the dangers of a police state.

Some police killings are properly described as tragic accidents. This was no accident. The police may have been acting in self‐​defense at the moment they fired their weapons, but they put themselves in that situation — with no justification whatever. The cops flouted the Constitution. They endangered innocent people. And their Rambo raid accomplished nothing.

The raid was a flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment’s Warrant Clause, which requires that police officers apply for an arrest or search warrant from a judicial magistrate. As the Supreme Court has explained, “The Fourth Amendment has interposed a magistrate between the citizen and police. It was done so that an objective mind might weigh the need to invade privacy in order to enforce the law.”

Had the task force followed constitutional procedure, Oregon would doubtless be alive today. That’s because any competent magistrate would have told the police that the uncorroborated, self‐​serving statement of a drunken arrestee who is already on probation for a previous offense falls well short of the evidence required for the issuance of a warrant. A few hours of investigation would have shown that the informer was a liar and that Oregon was innocent. (Those facts came out after the shooting).

The decision to take an illegal shortcut around the warrant application process was bad enough, but the police proceeded to execute a reckless raid. Barging into someone’s home in the middle of the night is an extraordinary police action that can be justified only under extraordinary circumstances. The startling and frightening sounds of a forced entry during the night would lead most Americans to believe they were in imminent danger from a predator. If a person in such circumstances has a gun, who in the world can blame him for using it to protect himself?

The police forced a confrontation with Oregon when it was totally unnecessary. Community outrage over the incident led the Houston Police Department to discharge the officers involved for misconduct. And Janet Reno has now asked the FBI to investigate. That’s not enough. Oregon’s death is not some tragic fluke. The endless escalations of the “drug war” have led to the militarization of police tactics and the dilution of constitutional safeguards. For the sake of Oregon and all of the other innocent casualties of this war, it’s time to reassess the awful toll it is taking on our society. Dangerous as drugs may be to those who use them, that danger pales in comparison with the dangers of a police state. Yet little by little, that is what the War on Drugs is giving us.

About the Author
Tim Lynch
Adjunct Scholar and Former Director, Project on Criminal Justice