Monday, January 11, 2010

What? You mean there are consequences to calling out SWAT without a reason?

Just about anytime a journalist covers some bizarre excess of law-enforcement behavior, in which armored vehicles, or heavy weapons or military tactics are invoked in obviously inappropriate contexts, the police-state cheerleaders come out of the woodwork. They assure us that we'll regret our words when it's shown that the target of some podunk town's aerial strike to collect overdue parking tickets was a danger to the republic worthy of the harshest measures. So it's with a measure of satisfaction that I report that David Carl, the fellow on the receiving end of a SWAT raid in Cottonwood, Arizona, last summer, not only faces no charges in the wake of that raid, but the city planning department even dropped a civil action against him. Not surprisingly, Carl plans to sue.

"Helmeted officers ... armed with automatic weapons" (according to a local newspaper, the Verde Independent) crashed through the doors of Carl's Wild West Express -- a package handling and delivery service -- last summer, supposedly on allegations that  the man had abused his twin teenage daughters. Returning to town after the fact of the raid, Police Chief Jody Fanning justified a subordinate's decision to call out the troops by saying, "We didn't know if he had a safe house or fortress." Officials also said that Carl owned guns and claimed he had anti-government views.

As I pointed out at the time, though, police can always claim that you might have forted up your residence -- we all might  have done anything to prepare for a siege. "Might" is a weasel word that requires no evidence. And as for guns and anti-government views ... This is Arizona. Rural Arizona. If the Constitution were to be suspended and anti-government political views and gun ownership declared sufficient rationale for forceful police action, they'd have to build a wall around the state.

But the official story that David Carl was a threat to children and law-enforcement officers seemed flawed from the very beginning. For starters, police didn't take the guns they claimed to fear so much. And after an initial trip to the police station, they let the girls go back home.

In fact, David Carl's conflicts with local authorities are more long-standing, deep-seated -- and boring -- than the dramatic raid suggests. At the time of the raid, Carl insisted that the city was just escalating a zoning battle over signs and an occupancy permit to a ridiculous extreme. In fact, city Planning and Zoning Commission records document precisely such a conflict -- pursued, in particular, by Darold Smith, a then-board member and current City Council member.

From May 19, 2008 minutes (PDF):

Two pending Hearing Officer cases: one involving a contract post office substation owned by David Carl and operating without a certificate of occupancy; and Gardner’s recycling operation on North Main Street.

From June 18, 2008 minutes (PDF):

Commissioner Smith talked about the Code Enforcement report, boarding houses, and that it
appears that David Carl is going out of business.

From October 20, 2008 minutes (PDF):

Darold Smith questioned enforcement status of zoning violations against David Carl (Wild West
Express) and Angela Lozano (boarding houses).

From November 17, 2008 minutes (PDF):

Darold Smith asked about the David Carl case and why it has taken over a year.

From February 23, 2009 minutes (PDF):

Darold Smith asked when David Carl would be shut down. Gehlert said after the
administrative process was exhausted, it went into the criminal phase, but the City Magistrate
refused to hear it.

From March 16, 2009 minutes (PDF):

Darold Smith inquired about the David Carl zoning enforcement case. Director Gehlert said
there was nothing new. He understood they would send it back through the system.

From April 20, 2009 minutes (PDF):

Darold Smith asked about enforcement on Gila (David Karl) and group homes.
Gehlert answered that on the Gila matter they were waiting for the new magistrate to
come onboard. The group home code was on the Council agenda the next evening.

Ummm ... Did David Carl run over Darold Smith's dog? The city official's interest seems a bit ... stalker-iffic.
In any case, the April 20 Planning and Zoning minutes were the last mention I could find of Carl (or Karl, assuming that's the same person) in city records, with Darold Smith's pet case apparently going nowhere in the courts. Smith took a seat on the city council in May. And then the police raided Wild West Express on July 20.

And now, according to the latest news, "Police Chief Jody Fanning says the County Attorney's Office will not prosecute Carl at this time. There are no pending charges against Carl or the business. An earlier planning department civil case against Carl was dismissed by the city."

There may well be more to this case than the public record shows. Perhaps David Carl is truly a danger and the police screwed up with their violent raid and its aftermath -- that is, they're incompetent rather than malevolent.

But I wouldn't bet on it. Right now, I'd take the scandal in Cottonwood, Arizona, as a lesson to be careful who you're ticking off when you go head-to-head with government officials. And keep a good lawyer on speed dial.



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