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Unwarranted "drug war' tactics

A yearlong grand jury study examining Florida's drug-control policies has produced some disturbing recommendations that detract from the sensible ones. The worst of them would further erode civil liberties, already one of the biggest casualties in the so-called war on drugs. Among the proposals: deny defense attorneys access to pre-trial depositions of witnesses, especially law enforcement officers, and encourage the use of portable X-ray equipment and thermal imaging technology to peer through the walls and doors of our houses and vehicles.

Some of the panel's ideas are worthwhile. The Department of Corrections clearly needs enough drug-sniffing dogs to search prisons for illicit drugs more than once a year. And there is a need for a fully funded drug court in every county, along with more money for treatment beds. Some of the panel's suggestions are even innovative, such as a pilot program for state employees in which insurance would cover drug treatment expenses.

But state and local leaders should be wary of curtailing a citizen's right to mount a full defense. Though the grand jury argues that an officer's report or a witness' statement is adequate, attorneys often can discover invaluable information through a pretrial interview. What's more, when defense attorneys discover in depositions that the prosecution has a strong case, they often encourage a client to plea bargain. That accomplishes the grand jury's goal of saving time and money by forgoing many trials. But prohibiting interview requests in the discovery phase violates a person's right to due process.

The grand jury also calls for arming the Florida National Guard with thermal-imaging cameras that detect heat emanating from buildings. This imprecise tool might sometimes help authorities learn where drugs are being grown indoors, but the practice constitutes a search without going through the process of getting a judge's warrant. A case challenging this high-tech invasion of privacy is before the U.S. Supreme Court. While the constitutionality of such searches is still in question, Florida should not rush to approve them.

There is much in the grand jury report worthy of consideration, but when choosing which recommendations to follow, lawmakers should remember that sacrificing our freedoms is too high a price to pay in the war against drugs.