TOPICS > Politics

Color Blind?

February 26, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY KAYE: Since April 1992, this federal prison in downtown Los Angeles has housed Christopher Lee Armstrong, whose case today was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Armstrong, a former postal worker, is being held without bond on charges that he and four alleged accomplices sold crack cocaine and carried firearms. The five have pleaded “not guilty” and claim their prosecution on federal charges is racially motivated, an allegation the government denies.

LEE ARMSTRONG: The truth is blacks are being unfairly prosecuted, and I don’t think that. I know it, after living inside of this building for 46 months.

JEFFREY KAYE: Armstrong and his co-defendants are charged with possessing and selling a total of about four and three quarter ounces of crack cocaine. The sales to undercover agents allegedly took place in this motel and in various parking lots around the Englewood area in early 1992. Armstrong’s lawyer, David Dudley, says the case transcends the details.

DAVID DUDLEY, Lawyer for Armstrong: I think his case represents a fundamental problem with the criminal justice system. I think that pretty much the majority of people who are charged with crack cocaine offenses are only in federal court because of their race.

JEFFREY KAYE: The decision to try Armstrong and his co-defendants in federal, as opposed to state, court was a critical one. Conviction on federal charges could bring sentences ranging from thirty-five years to life in prison. The penalty in state prison would be three to ten years for the same crimes. Deputy Federal Public Defender Barbara O’Connor is representing a co-defendant in the case, a case she says is part of a pattern of selective prosecution. She claims blacks accused of selling crack cocaine are more likely than whites to face federal rather than state charges.

BARBARA O’CONNOR, Deputy Federal Public Defender: Our lawyers were brainstorming these cases as it were. We noticed that all of the crack cocaine defendants that we were representing were black. We noticed that these individuals were facing multi-decade sentences. And we became concerned about the pattern of prosecution, that, that all the defendants appeared to be black. So what we did was look at our closed files for 1991, and we found out that, in fact, our suspicions were true, that of the 24 individuals we represented that year, 1991, all were black.

JEFFREY KAYE: Seeking to bolster the selective prosecution argument, O’Connor’s office persuaded the judge in the case to order the government to hand over documents, a racial breakdown of it crack sales prosecutions, and its guidelines for federal charges. The government refused to comply with the order and has fought the case to the Supreme Court. U.S. Attorney Nora Manella says the government shouldn’t be forced to turn over documents or to chase statistics in order to fend off what it considers spurious allegations.

NORA MANELLA, U.S. Attorney, Los Angeles: We thought there was simply no basis for any inference of selective prosecution and no reason to send the government out on a fishing expedition to collect data and racial statistics which we do not compile and which are absolutely irrelevant to our prosecutive decisions.

JEFFREY KAYE: Although the government says it shouldn’t have to compile data for the defense, statistics it collected for another case indicate comparatively high numbers of minorities have been prosecuted for federal crack trafficking crimes. According to its study, between January 1992 and March 1995, 149 defendants were charged with federal crack cocaine crimes in the greater Los Angeles area. Of those, only one was white. A hundred and nine were black, twenty-eight Hispanic, eight were Asian. Manella says there’s a reasonable explanation for the racial disparity.

NORA MANELLA: The reason law enforcement is concentrating its anti-crack trafficking and anti-violent crime resources in the inner city is that that is the area most plagued by violent crime and crack trafficking, period. Willie Sutton robbed banks because that’s where the money was. Law enforcement goes into the inner city to protect inner city residents against violent crime because that’s where the violent crime is.

JEFFREY KAYE: The city of Englewood, where Armstrong was arrested, is mostly non-white. Armstrong’s arrest was the product of a joint investigation by Englewood police and federal law enforcement. At the time, the federal agents involved were stationed at the Englewood City Police Department as part of an effort to crack down on inner city crime. Defense lawyers in the Armstrong case suggest that law enforcement disproportionately targets minority drug dealers in communities like Englewood because going after white crack dealers would be more work.

BARBARA O’CONNOR: One of our district judges has suggested that it’s like shooting goldfish in a goldfish bowl. It’s easier for law enforcement to go down to the corner of 11th and Hoover.

JEFFREY KAYE: The black community.

BARBARA O’CONNOR: Yes, the black community in Los Angeles, and, and easily arrest people who are openly dealing out on the street. If they go into a more affluent neighborhood like Brentwood–

JEFFREY KAYE: A white community.

BARBARA O’CONNOR: –a white community by and large–the crack dealing is going on behind closed doors.

JEFFREY KAYE: O’Connor’s assessment jibes with the perceptions of former crack dealers and users at a Los Angeles area halfway house called Impact.

RON LINDSEY: I can take you to Sherman Oaks. I can take you to North Hollywood.

MAN IN GROUP: Burbank.

RON LINDSEY: I can take you to Burbank, Glendale.

JEFFREY KAYE: These are white neighborhoods.

RON LINDSEY: White and–

JEFFREY KAYE: Beverly Hills.

RON LINDSEY: And you can find crack cocaine sold by a white.

“SAMMY”: The blacks standing on the corners, they do do it, and basically blacks have no shame in their game. They stand out there and they sell crack cocaine. If the cops come, they take off. So the feds are looking in that direction because it’s an easy bust for ’em basically. That’s a personal opinion, but that’s the way I’d see it, yeah.

JEFFREY KAYE: Then you all agree with that I take it?


JEFFREY KAYE: The government says there’s no conspiracy in that prosecutions simply reflect the fact that certain racial groups dominate certain crimes in the Los Angeles area.

NORA MANELLA: Hispanics constitute 98 percent of those prosecuted as criminal alien. Whites constitute 100 percent of those prosecuted for child pornography. And whites constitute the overwhelmingly large percentage of those prosecuted for complex white collar fraud. So as you can imagine, if the Armstrong decision stands, an inference of selective prosecution could be brought in all of these cases.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Supreme Court will not have to decide whether the Armstrong case itself constituted selective prosecution. But a decision in this case about what documents the government should give to the defense could set the stage for other claims of selective prosecution percolating up through the judicial system.