Supporters of crackdowns on open-air drug dealing in SF and District Attorney Brooke Jenkins's purported hardline stance on this issue might be glad to know that two low- or mid-level drug dealers were recently put on trial. But Jenkins's office dropped the charges against them after both trials ended in hung juries.
It's a fact not so widely understood that San Francisco is home to fairly sympathetic and anti-carceral juries, especially when it comes to non-violent crimes — that is, despite the rhetoric of some voters and politicians, a lot of juries in SF are not so law-and-order-lock-em-up as those voters and politicians might prefer. And so it's been with two recent cases in which public defenders have successfully argued, at least to a number of jurors' minds, that men selling drugs in the Tenderloin were not doing so entirely of their own free will, and were doing so out of intimidation, fear, and desperation.
As the Chronicle reports, the two suspects, both of whose names were withheld for the purposes of the article, are Honduran nationals. In both cases, defense attorneys argued that they were the victims of human trafficking, and locked into lives of drug-selling in order to pay debts to coyotes who helped them across the U.S. border. If they didn't pay these debts, the men said, there was an implicit threat that their families back home could be harmed or killed.
Whether you accept the idea that many or all immigrants selling fentanyl and other drugs on SF's streets are themselves victims in some way of poverty and inequality is a matter of perspective.
Jenkins's office argued that the men had relatively free lives in the Bay Area, with their own cars and cellphones and social lives, and that this was not the typical experience of someone being trafficked. Jenkins herself gave a quote to the Chronicle saying, "In the drug trade, there are always people who are high up who have said, 'Hey, you better not snort my coke; you better not give it away; you better sell it; you owe me money; if you don’t pay me the money, there are other consequences.'" She argues this is just part of the supplier-dealer relationship.
But in both cases, the men on trial gave testimony about owing money to a coyote — in one case, $15,000 — and handing over most of what they made to a supplier in the East Bay who was in contact with that coyote back in Honduras. One man reportedly said his weekly take-home pay was just $200. The other said he never kept the money he made selling drugs, and was just given a place to live by his forced employer.
One of the suspects told the court that the threats were never put in writing and were not necessarily even direct. He testified of his employer, "He told me specifically, 'You know who we are. You know that we are the same people. You know that you must do what we’re telling you to do.'"
On cross-examination, prosecutors pointed out that the suspects story about being trafficked after coming to the U.S. in 2018 ignored the fact that he had previously been convicted for selling drugs in SF in 2014.
The prosecution also brought veteran SFPD Narcotics Officer Christina Hayes to the stand in at least one of the cases, and she spoke of conversations she had with some of these dealers over the years, some of whom were sending home hundreds of dollars a month so they could build large houses back in Honduras.
Hayes said she didn't know of any mid- or street-level dealers who had been trafficked in this way, coerced unwillingly into the drug trade.
"It’s never about being coerced or MS-13 is out to get them … and they have to sell these drugs right away," Hayes said at trial, per the Chronicle's copy of a transcript.
The juries were hung — one was 10-2 in favor of acquittal, the other was 9-3 in favor of conviction, but neither could reach a verdict.
In any event, with the charges dropped after both mistrials, these men are presumably back on the street doing their thing. Cops are presumably reluctant to arrest them again given the outcome of these trials, though perhaps they've been warned.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen also used the mistrials last month as argument against a proposed carve-out to the sanctuary city policy, from Supervisor Matt Dorsey, that would have treated fentanyl dealing as a violent crime and subjected suspects like these to deportation.
Jenkins herself has backed down from a carve-out to the sanctuary policy that she had proposed last month, relating to two murder suspects whom the Department of Homeland Security wants to extradite. She ultimately found herself "agreeing" with a majority of supervisors that the feds should extradite the suspects regardless of SF's policy and trust that they will be properly handled by the criminal justice system.
As allegedly violent criminals, they wouldn't fall under the sanctuary policy anyway.