Finger pointing about who's most to blame for the open-air drug market that has existed in San Francisco's Tenderloin and SoMa neighborhoods for decades is de rigeur, and every politician here feels the need to shift blame away from themselves.
The simplistic narrative about the SFPD turning a blind eye, or prosecutors not charging harshly enough, or judges being too lenient on known criminals is just that — too simplistic. In fact, while drug cases may share similarities, each one is going to come with specific differences of evidence and of circumstance. And cops can make all the arrests they want, and prosecutors can throw the book at suspects as often as they like, but if the law doesn't back up the push to incarcerate, that suspect will still be set free — especially if there's enough doubt about whether they were even dealing drugs by choice.
Case in point: A juror in a recent case against a Honduran drug dealer in San Francisco, Anna Frammolino, penned a guest essay for the Chronicle this week. She explains how, regardless of her personal views about prosecuting drug crimes, she was one of ten jurors who voted to acquit the suspect in the case because the evidence suggested he was being trafficked.
"I’m a native Californian and have lived near the Tenderloin for several years," Frammolino writes. "Like everyone I know in San Francisco, I’m frustrated by the situation with drugs and homelessness in our city. And like many others here, my family and I have been thinking of moving out of town because of how challenging things have gotten. So I can see why people might be surprised about the decision most of us jurors reached."
But, she writes, jurors were under strict instruction from the judge not to allow personal opinions to dictate their votes. The process was "technical, almost surgical," Frammolino writes. And under California law, a suspect should be acquitted if they were "coerced to commit the offense as a direct result of being a human trafficking victim at the time of the offense and had a reasonable fear of harm."
Defense attorneys presented ample evidence, Frammolino says, that the suspect had come from Honduras to another part of the U.S., and was brought to San Francisco under false pretenses, being promised a construction job. He was instead told that he "owed" his trafficker, and was coerced into selling drugs. And during multiple previous arrests for dealing, his attorneys said, the suspect incurred debts for whatever product he lost in the arrest — digging a deeper hole in what lawyers call "coercion through debt bondage."
In the end, it's not clear if a mistrial was declared because of two holdouts on the jury, or if the suspect was acquitted outright. After the trial, the suspect was reportedly referred to a nonprofit that aids victims of human trafficking.
Do I believe all drug dealers are victims of human trafficking? No.
Do I think people who sell drugs should face consequences? Yes.
Do I think that San Francisco needs to improve the state of our city and specifically address drug use, including fentanyl, and homelessness? Yes.
However, as a juror, it was my duty to exclude my opinions and take into consideration only the trial and evidence presented in the courtroom and then apply the law as directed by the judge to reach a verdict.
Cases like this rase more questions. Are the traffickers being sought and prosecuted in any significant numbers? Is there more that that the city or state could be doing to root out human trafficking, or to cut off the drugs that trafficked victims are selling at the source? Is it a cop-out to blame all of these problems on the deep economic inequalities that lead to migration and trafficking in the first place?
This one juror suggests "the first step toward solving" the city's problems is recognizing the complexity in a case like this. And certainly, "lock 'em all up" is and always has been far too facile of an answer to endemic problems like this. It's not realistic, and the law won't allow it, in many cases like this and others.
So, the next time you hear a political figure like the district attorney or the governor trying to blame a judge or a group of judges for their leniency, understand that there's a much bigger system at work here — and if nothing else that system keeps some people who are being victimized by others from becoming victims of the justice system as well.
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