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Every week at the San Ysidro-Tijuana border, the busiest border in the world, agents seize many kilos of methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin that is hidden in cars. The majority of the drivers know of the presence of the contraband. They are usually paid by other individuals a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to attempt to cross hundreds of thousands of dollars of drugs into the United States.
There is no way to measure how many drivers are guilty and those, the “blind mules” who are duped into making the crossing. A safe assumption is the vast majority of drivers are guilty. But what about those who aren’t?
Federal law and federal agents are harsh on all those who cross drugs into the United States regardless of if the driver has knowledge. First, a driver is relentlessly interrogated usually by a team of two agents who espouse the party line that the only way a person can have drugs in their car is if they made an agreement with someone to transport the drugs.
Next, the individual is charged with offenses that usually carry a mandatory minimum of ten years imprisonment. Many of these individuals can’t even qualify for bail because with such offenses there is a “presumption” of no-bail because of the seriousness of the charge.
And for the innocent individual, they are faced with a dilemma. Should they accept a plea bargain of three or four years or face a sentence of ten years or more if the get convicted. Juries hate drugs and these kinds of offenses are very hard to defend. How can someone prove their innocence when they often don’t know how drugs were planted in their car?
The prosecutors arguments are often clever and very self-serving. The person was nervous when confronted at the border. Who wouldn’t be nervous when six agents force someone out of the car and accuse them of being a drug smuggler? The person was cold, overly friendly, too cooperative, not cooperative–any way you look at it “ guilty unless proven innocent.”
Even the federal government now recognizes that blind mules exist. There are the documented cases of the El Paso teachers who unknowingly carried packages in their trunks, the bus drivers and couriers in Tijuana, those who had magnetic packages adhered to the bottom of their vehicles. The prosecutors in San Diego even make a blanket disclosure now of the dozens of cases involving blind mules, many of which are still under investigation.
Congress is correct in finding the we have a drug problem in the United States. But all of the emphasis has been placed on seizure of drugs and prosecution of almost every driver who has drugs in a vehicle. But what about the truly innocent individual who is the true victim in this game of greed and deception? There used to be a saying that the presumption of innocence makes it more important than nine guilty individuals go free than one innocent person convicted. Sadly, this presumption is not applied in border drug smuggling cases.
Unfortunately, there is no way to know how many innocent people are sitting in federal jails because they took their car to the wrong mechanic or loaned it to the wrong friend. Based on my work, I believe there must be hundreds of innocent people incarcerated for drug crimes they did not commit. And no one but the defendants, their loved ones, and defense attorneys seem to care. Certainly not the federal government.
The government has a legitimate interest in prosecuting drug smugglers and attempting to shut off the flow of drugs into this country. But at the border, it should still be innocent unless proven guilty and not the reverse.