This Is Not a Drug Task Force: The Kafkaesque World of NITRO
Last year, over 20,000 people in Missouri were arrested for cannabis. A large proportion of these arrests come from the multi-jurisdictional drug task forces. Missouri has 27 of these multi-jurisdictional task forces, and they spent a combined 5.2 million dollars in 2013 enforcing narcotics laws across the state. These task forces-because of their multi-jurisdictional nature-operate with unprecedented power and an unprecedented lack of oversight.
One of these task forces is the NITRO Task Force. In 2012, the NITRO Task Force (operating out of Grundy County, MO) applied for 21 search warrants. A judge and prosecutor only signed 17 of them, and four were not authorized.
Most task forces have no problem getting their search warrants rubber-stamped by a judge. In 2012, these 27 task forces applied for a combined 1,231 warrants, and 1,223 were authorized (well over 99%). This is inherently concerning- the judicial branch is meant to serve as a check on executive power, but such a check is not effective when judges sign virtually every single warrant to come across their desks.
Four of the denied warrants — as many as the other 26 task forces combined — came from the NITRO Task Force. While it’s certainly quite concerning that most warrants are rubber-stamped, it’s also odd that one task force accounted for half of all denied task force search warrants in 2012.
Statewide, 99.35 percent of task force search warrants were authorized, but for NITRO, the rate was below 81 percent. This unusually high denial rate raises a number of questions, the first of which being what was on those search warrants? Why are so many warrants rubber-stamped, and what set these warrants apart from the rest?
Interested in finding out, I filed a Sunshine Request with the NITRO Task Force. My first open records request with the task force (on a different but related matter) had been ignored entirely. Back on November 26 2013, I filed a written request for some basic records about the structure and operation of the task force. When two months went by without a response, I called their phone number, as listed on the Missouri State Highway Patrol website (incidentally, the list of task force phone numbers has been taken down since I made that call, but of course I took a screenshot first- so you can see what it looked like here).
The phone call was a disaster.
AARON MALIN: Hi, is this Eric McAllester?
NITRO OFFICER: No.
AARON MALIN: Is this the NITRO Drug Task Force?
NITRO OFFICER: …Who is this?
AARON MALIN: My name is Aaron Malin.
NITRO OFFICER: Uh…who are you with?
AARON MALIN: I’m not with anybody. I was trying to call a listed number for the NITRO Drug Task Force.
NITRO OFFICER: Uh…nope, this isn’t it…[chuckles]
AARON MALIN: Is this the sheriff’s department, or…?
NITRO OFFICER: No, no no, this is just a…its a government building, but…
AARON MALIN: Okay…um…do you mind my asking which one?
NITRO OFFICER: Uh….this is- this is a government building…uh…who…who is this again?
AARON MALIN: Aaron Malin
NITRO OFFICER: Who do you need to speak with, Eric McAllester?
AARON MALIN: Eric McAllester, or somebody with the NITRO Drug Task Force. You really won’t tell me what building you’re in?
NITRO OFFICER: Well who are you wi-?
AARON MALIN: I’m not with anybody. I’m just trying- I am an individual citizen trying to file an open records request.
NITRO OFFICER: Ok, well you’re going to have to contact the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives Public Information Officer.
AARON MALIN: This is- man, this is literally the number they gave me to call. This exact number.
NITRO OFFICER: Well, I’m going to have to forward that request to that individual. I can give you the phone number and the person to contact.
AARON MALIN: That would be great, but can you tell me who I am talking to please, so I can tell them who forwarded me?
NITRO OFFICER: Uh…this is…this is…this is the task force…
The NITRO Task Force blatantly lies to folks who call their listed number and attempt to file open records request. This troubling lack of transparency is almost certainly a violation of Missouri’s Sunshine Law, as it becomes impossible to file a request when NITRO pretends your calls (to a number listed on the Missouri State Highway Patrol website) are to the wrong number.
NITRO has a solution to that pesky Sunshine Law: They claim to be exempt from state laws because they are actually a federal agency. (This sounds a lot like a recent case in Florida where US Marshalls claimed local police records belonged to the feds to exempt them from state open records laws, except more specious.) After my call with NITRO, I immediately double-checked the phone number. Upon confirming that I had indeed called the listed number for the NITRO Task Force, I gave them a call back, at which point they claimed to be exempt from state open records laws:
NITRO OFFICER #2: We got your request, and we forwarded it on to the ATF office per our policy, and that’s what was happenin’.
AARON MALIN: Are you not a state agency? Are you not under the highway patrol?
NITRO OFFICER #2: No. No…no. [chuckles].
AARON MALIN: Because they list you on their website.
NITRO OFFICER #2: Well I’m sorry. We’re not- we don’t have nothin’ to do with the highway patrol.
AARON MALIN: Ok so, I’m just trying to get a little bit of background on — on what exactly — on who exactly oversees NITRO, I guess.
AARON MALIN: Is it [NITRO] — it’s not a state agency?
NITRO OFFICER #2: No, it is not a state agency.
AARON MALIN: It’s not a federal agency?
NITRO OFFICER #2: No, its not a federal agency either. We are a task force, that its basically under ATF I guess I would say. We are under them. We go under their guidelines. We go by their policies. We’re all commissioned federally. So we basically work for ATF, even though we’re not paid by them.
AARON MALIN: Ok. So who pays you then? The state?
NITRO OFFICER #2: It’s a grant situation.
He’s right- it is a grant situation. The narcotics grants come from the Missouri Department of Public Safety (DPS). The federal government does provide some additional funding for these state task force grants to DPS, but a Missouri department directly controls task force funding.
That means, despite their claims to the contrary, agencies like the NITRO Task Force are subject to Missouri’s Sunshine Law because they are funded through the state, specifically through the Missouri Department of Public Safety. Missouri’s Sunshine Law is very clear on the matter.
(4) “Public governmental body”, any legislative, administrative or governmental entity created by the constitution or statutes of this state, by order or ordinance of any political subdivision or district, judicial entities when operating in an administrative capacity, or by executive order, including:
(f) Any quasi-public governmental body. The term “quasi-public governmental body” means any person, corporation or partnership organized or authorized to do business in this state pursuant to the provisions of chapter 352, 353, or 355, or unincorporated association which either:
a. Has as its primary purpose to enter into contracts with public governmental bodies, or to engage primarily in activities carried out pursuant to an agreement or agreements with public governmental bodies; or
b. Performs a public function as evidenced by a statutorily based capacity to confer or otherwise advance, through approval, recommendation or other means, the allocation or issuance of tax credits, tax abatement, public debt, tax-exempt debt, rights of eminent domain, or the contracting of leaseback agreements on structures whose annualized payments commit public tax revenues; or any association that directly accepts the appropriation of money from a public governmental body, but only to the extent that a meeting, record, or vote relates to such appropriation; and
I contacted the Sunshine Complaint Unit within the Office of the Attorney General of Missouri. They recommended trying to file the request with the Grundy County Sheriff’s Office directly, which I proceeded to do. The sheriff’s office also claimed to not have access to the records. Despite my firm belief that the NITRO Task Force is required to respond to Sunshine Law requests, I did submit two FOIA requests through ATF, the first on April 30th, 2014 and another on June 21st, 2014. Both have been ignored entirely.
Meanwhile, NITRO has continued to have problems getting their search warrants authorized. In 2013, NITRO was denied three of 17 warrants for which they applied. All 27 task forces were denied a combined seven search warrants in 2013, and NITRO accounted for three of them. If they ever realize that they are subject to state or federal open records laws, and end up providing me copies of the denied search warrants, I will certainly post them as part of an update.
Given NITRO’s claim they are overseen by the ATF, I reached out to the Public Information Officer, John Ham, in the Kansas City ATF Office. I gave him advance notice of the contents of this article, along with 48 hours to offer a comment. He too was apparently unable to get a straight answer from the NITRO Task Force (I wonder whom they pretended to be when he called). After attempting contact for two full business days, he was unable to provide me with comment because he was “still attempting to gather information relevant to [my] research.” If ATF can’t even get a straight answer out of NITRO, what hope do the rest of us have?
The lack of transparency displayed by the NITRO Task Force is shocking and disturbing. This is an organization that is empowered to execute no-knock search warrants and make arrests. Beyond that, NITRO spent over $200,000 of taxpayer money in the past three years. We deserve to know how that money was spent. This agency possesses broad powers and seems to operate with little to no transparency or accountability, and that makes for a dangerous combination.
If you believe in transparency when it comes to how semi-federal agents are carrying out the war on drugs in Missouri, we need your help. This research is expensive, and law enforcement agencies regularly charge extreme document fees (of thousands of dollars) in an attempt to dissuade us from accessing public records. When law enforcement agencies ignore the law — especially those fighting the war on drugs — we can take them to court and force them to follow it. If we don’t, the war on drugs continues in the dark. If this research and accountability is important to you, please make a contribution here.
Aaron Malin is the Director of Research for Show-Me Cannabis. You can email him with questions or comments at Aaron@ShowMeCannabis.com.