Burning Man, a one-week festival of attendee-created art and community held every year in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada (subject of my 2004 book This is Burning Man) is an interesting combination of quasi-anarchy (a community that, if left alone, operates in mostly joyous comity even doing dangerous things, with very limited "public services" like portapotties and dust-road grading provided via ticket sales for an audience that is there by choice) and police state (heavily patrolled, not necessarily because they are needed but because they can, by a plethora of local and federal agencies adding up to over 100 nearly 200 agents active through the city, more than one for every 700 350 citizens.)
While the experience encourages a sense of expansive freedom and community, people supplying an interesting service to the 70,000 attendees—delivery of U.S. mail by people who are not actual U.S. postal service employees—are seeing their packages searched by drug dogs by the Bureau of Land Management, who owns manages the government land that Burning Man leases to hold its event.
It will not surprise readers of Reason that these walking Fourth Amendment violating beasts seem to get it wrong a lot of, likely all, the time.
Five attendees who had packages sent to them at Burning Man c/o the post office at Gerlach, the nearest permanent city to the festival, tell me their packages were delivered not by fun-loving fellow Burners playing the role of postman to add to the spirit of civic play that Burning Man (whose encampment is called "Black Rock City") creates, but by armed BLM agents. (There are two different camps at Burning Man who take it upon themselves to deliver mail; Black Rock City Post Office (BRCPO), which by arrangement with Gerlach's postmistress picks up packages mailed to specific people or camps at "Burning Man" or "Black Rock City" with Gerlach's zip code. A breakaway group consisting of BRC3PO and PO9 have a specific post office box address in Gerlach from which they distribute to Burners at the event.)
Those agents strongly encouraged the five attendees I spoke to to open the package in law enforcement presence, because, they were told, drug dogs had "indicated" on the package.
In four of the five cases related to me, the recipient, often with misgivings, gave in and gave consent. In the fifth case, the recipient refused but, before knowing what was going on, basically told the cops how to find the senders, also at Burning Man. The senders (knowing full well what was and wasn't in the package) were tracked down and agreed to open the package.
Some of what was in the packages: pickles, storebought cakes and chocolate espresso beans, nuts, a baseball cap, and a small spinning flower toy whose petals opened.
What was not in any of the packages: illegal drugs.
Mail deliverers for two different (somewhat rival, with the BRC3PO and PO9 arising from people disenchanted with the original BRCPO) both admit that, yes, the BLM leans on them to allow their dogs to sniff at their packages, and yes, fearing what might result if they later could be seen as essentially being part of an illegal drug delivery service, they comply.
A "postie" with BRC's PO9 who wants to be identified only by his playa name "Ender" says that his operation was approached by BLM and told "yeah, we are going to sniff your packages, do you consent? And we said yes," with the perception that "our other option is being charged with drug distribution" later on if they are found to have delivered contraband.
The dog sniffs frequently happen in the very parking lot of the Gerlach post office after they take the mail out, Ender says. The packages are spread out on the ground and the dog circles and sniffs. Ender says BLM sometime runs the dog over the pile more than once if they don't alert at first.
Sometimes the BLM escorts Ender and his mail to where the drug dogs already are on the Black Rock playa at the event itself. He does sign a consent form. He says in past years the BLM gave him a receipt for the packages they seize, which Ender says tends to be 1-3 per day, but this year they did not. Agents told him they would mail him receipts later; it hasn't happened yet.
A woman who prefers to be identified only by her playa name "Bizzi" picks up mail for the BRCPO, and tells a similar story. BLM agents often escort their mail runners out of Burning Man to Gerlach through a quicker playa exit than going through Burning Man's gate.
Usually they accompany them back with the mail to the Burning Man site, lay out the packages near the cops own camp, and have dogs sniff at them. (She recalls an agent telling her that merely having a package with drugs in her van could mean a dog would signal on her van for weeks later.)
This year they pulled so many packages the first day she saw them, Bizzi recalls, about 15, that they skipped inspecting them at least the next day, possibly more. They did leave her with a form with the names of the recipients of packages they took, some of which match the names of the people who told me their stories of BLM mail delivery.
Bizzi's discomfort with this process, the role she feels pressured to play in it, and even talking about it is obvious. One of the people whose package was confiscated and delivered by BLM—one without drugs in it—came to their BRCPO camp "hopping mad, asking questions we had difficulty answering."
Longtime Burner Peter Durand of Boston was certainly surprised when returning to his camp late in the week to hear "The BLM stopped by twice during the day looking for you" without saying why. Not having any idea why, not guessing it could have any law enforcement purpose, and wondering vaguely if it involved some emergency communication from the outside world, he cooperated when they returned and was told they had a package for him a dog had hit upon.
Though Durand couldn't be sure there was no contraband inside, he figured at worst there might be a joint which could lead to a ticket. With vague threats (he can't recall the specifics) of more hassle ahead if he refused, he agreed to open the package in front of them. It contained a spinning flower toy, no drugs.
One camp, Camp Electra, had two separate visits from multiple BLM mail deliverers. (The photos accompanying this article are from those incidents.) They arrived at least once in a non-agency-marked undercover vehicle.
A woman who wants to be identified by her playa name Kiki del Fuego got a package essentially returned to her by the BLM at that camp. She and a friend with playa name Ginger had sent a care package of pickles, nuts, and candy to an old Burning Man pal at another camp, Planet Earth.
A campmate gave the BLM permission to wake in through his camp to find Kramer Davis, the addressee; Kramer was told it started with a normal-looking Burning Man postal dude asking for Kramer, and then "three BLM guys stepped around into his line of sight, saying we really need to talk to Kramer now."
"I didn't think anything of it, I am so straight-laced you wouldn't believe it" says the 13-year Burning Man attendee. "I wasn't even thinking it would be anything bad, I've watched all those YouTube videos on how to respond to police asking questions and all that went out the window."
When they asked him how he knew the senders, Kiki and Ginger, before being aware there was any legal issue, Davis mentioned that he knew them from the Burning Man Camp Electra. "I wasn't under the impression I was being interviewed or there was any law enforcement situation going down, which makes me feel really stupid."
When he was told about drug dogs alerting to the package, he was asked at least twice to consent to opening it for them, and he declined.
That information Davis gave up about the senders led the BLM back to Camp Electra.
Kiki, who is 69 years old, says she thought that "the agents seemed a little surprised coming into camp and seeing that I'm an older woman."
Another similar package from Kiki and Ginger sent to one of their own campmates was also delivered by BLM, and the same request for opening and compliance happened. They were asked to sign a form for the BLM admitting the package was being opened with their consent. Another package sent to that camp from a retired judge containing a baseball cap and pictures rolled up in a tube was also alerted to by a dog and delivered by armed BLM agents.
Gary Taylor of that camp says that he asked one of the agents what might have happened had they refused to open the packages; "he said we'd take the package back and get a warrant and search the entire camp." Taylor mordantly note the absurdity that "in the whole process our rights are being dictated by a dog." And think, Taylor says, of the terrible incentives created by people knowing that if you decide to mail them something illegal to Burning Man, that's a sure way to get them in legal trouble. "Anyone could use that to set someone up."
A different attendee at a different camp had his real name (which he does not want in print associated with drug law enforcement for professional reasons) written in small print on the bottom of a package addressed to "Seymour Butts and Suzi Creamcheese." (It's Burning Man, man.) He also had BLM deliver the package to his camp, and was told they would come back with a warrant if he didn't open it for them, and told him that if it was just something like a couple of joints it would just be a $500 fine, so….?
After 20 minutes of back and forth, he says, they said that postal case law says it's already his responsibility and if you make us go get the District Attorney involved it's between you and him. Deciding there was likely nothing illegal, he consented and signed the form they asked him to sign. "Fortunately, I was right." One of the items were store-bought chocolate covered espresso beans that the whimsical sender had labeled "magic beans." The BLM swabbed the beans in front of him, and that was the end of it.
Beyond the five people I directly spoke to, I've heard second hand reports of at least a few more very similar BLM mail deliveries. The stories were very similar: agents who were polite and professional, cordial and non-confrontational, "chill and not dickish at all."
They also all were eager to offer excuses that weren't even asked for when they found out their dogs had "alerted" to innocent packages. Durand recalls getting an unsolicited "long explanation of how it might have been a package that did have drugs that rubbed up against mine." A woman who goes by the name Halston at Burning Man at Camp Electra recalls them making excuses about how, well, if all the packages were in a bag together, the scent of some other drug filled package likely rubbed off on theirs. The unnamed man above recalls them making excuses for all the reasons why a drug dog would have reacted without drugs actually being inside—like someone smoking a joint nearby while it was being packaged—before he even consented to open the package.
Jola Mott, the postmistress in the actual U.S. post office in Gerlach to which the packages arrive, says she was aware via both the BLM and official U.S.P.S Postal inspectors that this was being done, but that the searching was done after it left her post office and went from U.S. mail to just things in the possession of a citizen.
Ender of PO9 tells me this has been happening to them since at least 2013; Bizzi of BRCPO was not aware it was happening before this year. (While I had never heard of the practice 'til I saw a Facebook friend mentioning it after the event, Ender had mentioned it last July in a comment thread on Burners.me, a site for commentary and criticism of the Burning Man world.)
As Taylor of Camp Electra, which had two such visits, says, drug dogs on mail may be "common among law enforcement, but for the rest of us it is relatively unknown." Kiki says she has been "going to Burning Man for 15 years and never heard of this happening." (I've been going for 21, and I hadn't either.)
Burning Man's vibe works on an atmosphere of trust, which this practice certainly messes with. The fun and games of "real mail delivery on playa" is sullied by the BLM's apparently fruitless insistence on this drug dog practice.
As part of their often delicate negotiations with the various police agencies involved to get their event legal and permitted, Burning Man as an organization is pretty much paying for all the things law enforcement chooses to do in policing the event, so Burning Man ticket holders are subsidizing these affronts to their privacy and civic trust.
Since all the cases directly discussed with me involve the possessor of the package giving consent to the sniff or the opening, there is no clear 4th Amendment violation involved. But there is certainly poking at the edges of privacy for little law enforcement benefit, even if you do believe that preventing people from mailing or receiving drugs is a vital public safety imperative.
BLM spokesman Rudy Evenson acknowledged the practice existed, and said in an emailed statement that it was part of "an effort to curb the growing problem of illegal narcotics being shipped to event participants via the USPS." How prevalent? How many people have been found doing this? The BLM won't say. Beyond the five people I spoke to, Norm Browne at Camp Electra, who chatted with BLM agents on their mail errand, says they referred to "quite a few" such deliveries they were making.
As Taylor from Camp Electra said, "I was flabbergasted not so much by the fact that dogs were being used on mail but the fact that the dogs were wrong. If they are wrong on ours, and we know they were wrong, how can you actually go to court and have law enforcement officer testify without lying that the dog is reliable?"
In none of the cases I know about were drugs found. While I have not tracked down every Burner who received a mail call from the BLM, I have not heard even third hand rumors of any drugs actually being found in U.S. mail sent to Burning Man. I directly asked Evenson whether any of the announced 41 arrests or over 600 drug citations at Burning Man this year were related to drugs found in U.S. mail sent to Burning Man that drug dogs had "alerted" to.
His emailed response: "We can't provide the level of specificity you are asking for at this point. Additionally, once we have analyzed the data we would still not comment on open cases."
UPDATE: BRCPO9, discussed above, put on their Twitter feed a photo of the drug dogs in action.