Police seized thousands of dollars worth of pipes, bongs and other devices from nearly a dozen local convenience stores Thursday — sending “a strong message” to owners that using their businesses to sell drug paraphernalia won’t be tolerated in Mobile.
After a six-month investigation that included controlled purchases by undercover officers, the Mobile Police Department worked in conjunction with others agencies to execute search warrants at 10 convenience stores and five residential homes tied to their owners.
“Certainly some of these items can be used to smoke tobacco, but some of the pipes are fashioned specifically to smoke crack cocaine or methamphetamine,” outgoing Chief James Barber said. “Some of these are not retail items either, they are kept behind the counter in little paper bags and sold individually to people looking for it.”
At a press conference announcing the results of the raid, police set up several tables full of various items that are commonly used to ingest or prepare illegal drugs like crack cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.
However, by themselves, some of the items aren’t illegal and are fairly common in gas stations, vape shops and novelty stores in the area. In fact, Maj. John Barber, head of the Field Operations Division, said: “none of this stuff is illegal by itself.”
“You can sell this and you can sell this,” he said, going through some of the items. “However, when you’ve got them behind the counter and they’re packaged by someone other than the manufacturer, that’s different. It’s the totality of the circumstances that makes it illegal.”
The packages John Barber was referring to were small, unmarked bags that contained a glass pipe used to smoke crack cocaine as well as a “copper scrubber” he said is often used as a makeshift filter. In some stores, those filters were sold pre-sized to fit certain pipes.
In all, the operation led to 16 arrests, though most were the result of misdemeanor charges for possession of drug paraphernalia. However, one of arrest was for felony possession of kratom — a natural leaf containing two alkaloids outlawed by Alabama’s legislature in May of 2016.
Two individuals arrested, Kiran Patel and Rita Patel, were not legal residents of the United States. According to police, they were working at one of the gas stations and have since been turned over to federal authorities with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to face deportation.
All of the arrested persons and their respective charges can be viewed in the slideshow below.
A review of Mobile County Metro County Jail records shows that only two of those arrested have a criminal history. Marie Wacker, 34, has previous arrests for theft, and Singh Rajput, another employee, was charged with selling alcohol to a minor in 2013.
All of the stores targeted in the operation remain open for business, though Barber said an investigation is ongoing.
Each store’s history and the severity of its respective violations will be weighed as the police decide whether to seek the revocation of business licenses. However, those actions can only be taken by the Mobile County Council.
Even though the majority of the charges that resulted from the operation were light, Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich said the focus of her office will be sending a message to businesses that have and continue to sell drug-related items openly in Mobile.
“If [someone] wanted to argue that they didn’t know these items were drug paraphernalia, they certainly know it now,” Rich said. “We’ve sent a very strong message that none of these items are allowed to be possessed or sold by convenience store owners.”
However, those comments appear to be at odds with John Barber’s claim that “none of this stuff is illegal by itself.”
There’s also a widespread misconception in the general public that pipes or bongs require evidence of having been used to ingest illegal drugs in order to be considered paraphernalia.
When a reporter told Rich that viewers had raised the same question, she responded by saying, “I don’t think they went to law school” — defining paraphernalia as “any item that can be used to ingest any illegal substance.”
“It’s that simple,” she added.
Indeed, section 13A-12-260 of Alabama’s criminal code makes no distinction in items that do or do not have “residue” from illegal drugs present.
Instead, it broadly defines paraphernalia as anything “used, intended for use, or designed for use” in the production and consumption of compounds identified as controlled substances under state law.
However, defense attorney Richard Shields — a former prosecutor and special district judge for Mobile County — told Lagniappe that possession of paraphernalia is very rarely charged by itself, and it’s also uncommon to see someone charged with multiple counts of it.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had any client charged with paraphernalia only because it’s almost invariably going to be charged along with something else,” he said. “An aluminum can is often time used to smoke crack, but for it be paraphernalia, you’ve got to show [it’s] in some way related to drug use, sales or distribution.”
With that said, Shields did agree that the “totality of circumstances” are considered when evaluating the possession of drug paraphernalia.
Addressing reporters Thursday, Barber said additional charges might be possible as the investigation continues and the department receives the results from tests being conducted by the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences (ADFS).
Some of the products sent for testing purported to contain CBD [Cannabidiol] oil. According to Barber, some field-tested positively for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the active ingredient in marijuana.
In addition to hundreds of products, police seized $508,537 in cash and frozen bank assets.According to police, some of the stores were selling items and depositing the cash proceeds into business-related accounts.
However, determining which proceeds came from “paraphernalia” and which were earned legally is a task that will fall to the DA’s office.
“If we can prove those proceeds are going into these respective bank accounts, then we can seize those accounts because this is money made off illegal paraphernalia,” Rich said. “Then we’ll argue in court that the vast majority of money in these accounts is coming from the illegal possession and sale of paraphernalia.”
Also seized in Thursday’s raid were six guns, which are commonly found behind the counters of convenience stores. Though it’s unclear if any of the guns were obtained illegally, Barber said the crime of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug crime could apply in some cases.
“It is a federal crime to use drugs and have a firearm simultaneously,” he said. “So, we’re vetting that through the U.S. Attorney’s office and the District Attorney’s office to determine whether those violations may have occurred in these specific gun-carry incidents.”