War on Drugs

Wave of Burning Man-Related Drug Arrests Won't Go to Trial

District Attorney finds too many questionable stop and search practices in campaign of harassment aimed at Burners.

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As reported here back in August, a cabal of federal and state agencies conducted a campaign of onerously harassing car stops and subsequent drug arrests on the main road heading to the Burning Man festival in the weeks ramping up to its start.

This is Burning Man book cover

Many of those stopped, and the Burning Man organization itself, made noise, complaining that there were obvious Fourth Amendment issues raised by the excuses for the stops and the subsequent dog-triggered searches, ticketing, and arrests. The feds insisted the Burning Man connection was pure coincidence, and that this was just part of an existing Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) campaign to stop opiate trafficking in tribal lands.

Now the Reno Gazette-Journal reports that the courts are agreeing with those who saw something fishy about the pullovers and arrests. The Washoe County District Attorney's Office "chose not to pursue seven of the nine cases." According to documents obtained by the Gazette-Journal, the district attorney's office said "the cases would not hold up in state court."

Despite the "opioid eradication" excuse, none of the drug arrests were for opioids.

The Gazette-Journal also reports that:

During one of the stops, the officers appeared to hold the suspect beyond the designated time limit in Nevada for a Terry stop, or a brief detention under reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

"Police must diligently pursue a means of investigation during a Terry stop that is likely to dispel their suspicions quickly," the district attorney's office wrote, noting the 79-minute length of the suspect's detention…

"The Fourth Amendment issues are troublesome," wrote the district attorney's office in one of the cases submitted.

In the case, no probable cause is listed for the initial traffic stop, which later led to a search and seizure of what appeared to be cocaine, according to the arrest report. The report did not specify the quantity of the controlled substance…

In another case, the report lacked enough information about the time of the stop, the reason for the stop and the length of the stop. The stop led to a K9 search of the vehicle and a federal agent found mushrooms and acid tablets during the vehicle search, according to the arrest report.

"I do not believe I can prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt at trial," wrote the district attorney's office.

As reported in August, the Burning Man organization was contemplating suing over the apparent rights violations and their effect on the event's operations, but such a suit has not yet been filed. However Burning Man spokesman Jim Graham told the Gazette-Journal they still consider it "clear from the outset the BIA was targeting Burning Man participants with their traffic stops."

I wrote the first history of the Burning Man event in my 2004 book This is Burning Man.