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23 'Meth Merchants' plead guilty

By George Joseph in New York
Last updated on: February 08, 2006 23:04 IST
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The infamous Operation Meth Merchant case in Georgia took an unexpected turn with as many as 23 of the accused pleading guilty and two more cases being dropped. Seven of them have already been sentenced to jail time.

A total of 49 persons were charged with selling over the counter medicines that could be used for making the illegal drug methamphetamine, or meth as it is commonly known. The products include common convenience store staples, such as cold medicine (which includes psuedoephedrine, an active ingredient in methamphetamine), kitty litter, matches, aluminum foil, cooking fuel, and charcoal.

Of the 49, 44 were Indian Americans.

Action against Indian store owners condemned   

The Indian American community alleged the police and prosecution indulged in racial profiling and has rallied behind the merchants.

According to the original charges, the accused faced up to 25-years in prison, forfeiture of their stores and fines of up to $250,000. But those who pleaded guilty got a lesser senetence. Many of them, however, face deportation.

"Different people pleaded guilty for different reasons," said Deepali Gokhale, organizer of the Racial Justice Campaign against Operation Meth Merchant, an apex body of several organizations.

"Those living undocumented pleaded guilty, because in any case they would be deported," Manny Arora, an attorney, said. Two of his clients pleaded guilty. Some pleaded guilty because the evidence against them was very strong and there was no chance for them in a trial which could have brought stiffer sentences.

One person with a green card was also among those pleaded guilty, Gokhale said. He could be deported because pleading guilty to felony charges is sufficient cause.

Three undocumented Indians were sentenced January 27. Mangesh Patel and Pravinkumar Patel were given one year probation with the expectation of being deported to India as soon as possible, while Prahladbhai Patel was sentenced to the time he has already served, seven months, and also a period of 120 days home confinement if he was not deported immediately.

Since all three were undocumented, the immigration authorities, specially invited by the prosecutor, were waiting to take them immediately to an immigration detention center. Pravin Patel's wife and four-month old baby were taken to Chicago by her brother.

Though these men said they would leave on their own, the immigration officials did not agree. "INS interfered and used the mandatory detention provision to take them into custody. They may be in custody for up to eight weeks before being formally deported," Arora said.

Justice finally done in Indian's case

"When there are federal defendants, in many types of cases, fraud, drugs, whatever, if they are in the country illegally and in court actions like sentencings, it is very common for illegal aliens to be immediately deported at the conclusion of their court proceedings, sentence being served, etc," explained Patrick Crosby, a spokesperson for the US Attorney's office.

Earlier three store clerks were sentenced to one year probation and 120 days home confinement. Assistant US Attorney Lisa Tarvin recommended sentences at the lower end of federal guidelines for defendants Tonya Layman, Judy Higdon and Ashley Knight, because they cooperated with the prosecution and because they had had only a minor role in selling the items.

The court ordered that Layman and Knight were to use electronic monitoring devices during their home confinements. Higdon was deemed trustworthy enough not to need such a device.

Several human rights groups and civil rights groups including American Civil liberties Union have joined the fight on the merchants' side, accusing the prosecution of racism. However, US Attorney David Nahmias said "The United States Attorney's Office prosecutes cases based on the evidence and the law not the defendant's race, ethnicity, or last name. A few cases have been dismissed, many have resulted in guilty pleas, and others are continuing towards trial. We are continually assessing each case on its own merits, and we welcome additional information and views."

Meanwhile, the North American South Asian Bar Association has partnered with the US Drug Enforcement Administration for a joint project 'C-Store Outreach Project,' aimed at educating and creating awareness among the South Asian community about meth.

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George Joseph in New York