Civil Liberties

Feds to Raided Smoke Shop Owner: Say Your Sister Assaulted a Federal Agent or No Bail For You


Ridiculous miscarriage of justice out of federal court in the western division of Texas, Pecos division.

Tom Cochran

In a federal/local raid earlier this month on a "smoke shop" called the Purple Zone in Alpine, Texas, two sisters running the place were arrested: Ilana and Arielle Lipsen.

Arielle insists she was hit in the head with a rifle by a DEA agent in what she characterized as an unprovoked assault. The feds, naturally, insist that Ms. Lipsen in fact attacked the agent.

Pictures of Lipsen's head with the alleged gun butt wound were taken and spread on Facebook by Tom Cochran, who runs a screen printing shop whose services the Lipsen sisters used.

The document that Ilana Lipsen had to sign to make bond, which I have seen, included this handwritten demand among some of the more common typeset ones like "maintain or actively seek employment" and "surrender passport": 

"will advice media (Kwest9 news) that he [sic] sister, arielle lipsen, was not beaten by agents carrying/using a M16 rifle, and her sister instigated/assaulted agents."

The bond document also demanded she ask Tom Cochran to take his photos of the aftermath of the raid and of Arielle's wounded head off Facebook; Cochran says she did make that request, and he refused to comply. Various people complained to get Facebook to take down the photos, but Cochran says Facebook investigated and decided there was no reason to delete them. Cochran also says that once safely free, Ilana thanked him for not taking them down. 

Ilana says this morning that at the advice of her lawyer she can't say much, but did tell me: "I was incarcerated from Tuesday of last week and wasn't released until Monday of this week. That should tell you something."

A NewsWest9 report says Lipsen did, as ordered, recant her original story.

The pictures have now led Cochran to suffer a public call for boycott of his business, Big Bend Screen Printing, from the National Border Patrol Council, an AFL-CIO affiliate union for Border Patrol workers. (Local station NewsWest9 has more on that.) Cochran finds this a weird abuse of federal agency power, to use their name in a union to attack the livelihood of a private citizen not facing any charges. "Their own code of conduct says they should not use anything associated with [the agency] for personal gain or to assert undue influence."

Witness Nick Branson, who lived in a separate apartment with a separate address attached to the raided store, had his home searched as well, and though he's been charged with nothing had some property taken, more property than the feds will admit to in the property list they left him with, he complains. They took a gun and some hard drives and flash drives and some frankincense, which he assumes they think is illegal.

He insists that the incident happened this way: Ms. Lipsen "was talking to another agent, she wasn't yelling as they claim, she was on the sidewalk, wasn't even on the property at the time. She was basically saying things like, 'don't you have better things to do with cartels and kidnapping and human trafficking, we are 100 miles from the border, this is what you are coming up with?'

"That's when the same agent who told me he didn't need a warrant to be inside my house [and who also, Branson says, snapped back with "what are you, a fucking lawyer?" when Branson mentioned the Fourth Amendment] tried to grab her. She backed up, said 'don't touch me.' He said, 'you are resisting arrest' and basically put his leg out, threw her over his leg onto the ground.

"She tried to get back up and he went to shove her face back into the ground. She's flailing at this point, obviously upset, and he says 'you are assaulting me' and used his rifle butt on her neck to pin her to the ground while other agents tackled her."

Branson says he's shown the picture of Lipsen to friends of his from military who confirm that that is what it would likely look like if a rifle butt were pressed into her neck.

Some excerpts from local news coverage, including the Big Bend Sentinel:

Arielle Lipsen was indicted on one count of assault on a federal officer causing bodily injury and Ilana Lipsen was indicted on one count of person under indictment receipt of ammunition.

Purple Zone owners Ilana Lipson, and her mother, Rosa Lipsen, are currently under state indictment for multiple first-degree felony manufacture, deliver, or possession of a controlled substance following four previous raids beginning in November 2012.

They've pleaded not guilty to the charges.

And local TV station NewsWest9 on the whys and results of the raid:

On Wednesday, the DEA in partnership with Customs Border Protection held a nationwide synthetic drug takedown named 'Project Synergy: Phase II" involving nearly 200 search warrants in 29 states across the U.S. The DEA says the  visit to The Purple Zone in Alpine was one of them…..

The owner's sister told her agents entered their business and took their guns, two computers, cell phones, cameras and their hard drives. She also says agents disconnected her surveillance cameras then faced them toward the wall. The owner claims nothing she sells is illegal, nor is it classified as a synthetic drug….

NewsWest 9 spoke with the DEA who confirms that this was a state search warrant used in this situation, looking for synthetic controlled substances. They say these allegations are false.

In a statement from Brewster County District Attorney, Rod Ponton, he says, "Numerous items of evidence, including "spice" packages, firearms, and ammunition, were seized pursuant to warrants. When occupants refused entry to agents in possession of a valid warrant, the door was broken down, during which action one agent received an accidental cut, which resulted in the blood at the scene. Ariel Lipsen was arrested for assaulting one of the agents. Neither she nor any person involved was "beaten with the butt of an M-16″, or assaulted in any manner."

Interesting long stuff from Alpine Avalanche on the background of the DEA war on synthetic drugs.

While Lipsen's lawyer was not available for comment this morning, other criminal defense lawyers told me this is a strangely abusive bail demand. Mark Kuby, who is also a talk show host in New York, considers it a "Texas-sized" violation of rights, "as unprecedented as it is unconstitutional" since bail demands properly should be restricted to furthering two government interests: protecting the community from possible criminal action by defendant, and to make sure the defendant appears for trial.

That said, a third criminal defense lawyer I spoke to said that when it comes to possible co-conspirators, such demands might not be that unusual.

Hat tip: Wil Wheaton's Tumblr via colleague Jesse Walker