The Prying Game

America was once a country that had something called the Bill of Rights. Now it's a country where you have to piss in a cup to get a menial job, where you can be locked up for months on end without having been convicted of any crime, and where freedom is becoming more and more a quaint detail of history.

Arizona in particular bears more than a passing resemblance to the former Soviet Union. You can now be persecuted not just for what you do, but for what goes on inside your head.

Anyone who thinks I'm exaggerating should pay a visit to Sea of Green Hydroponics in Tempe. It's a store that sells gardening equipment. Its owner, Treg Bradley, says his customers include NASA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the City of Dallas and Peoria High School.

The U.S. District Court recently issued the store a subpoena. Bradley has been ordered to hand over names, addresses and phone numbers of customers who have purchased equipment for growing plants and vegetables indoors. He's also supposed to give the same information about customers who've bought the book Marijuana Hydroponics. This last should be easy, as Bradley claims he doesn't carry that book.

Aside from the purposes suggested by the book, what is the equipment used for? "Herbs, fresh basil, thyme, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, flowers, strawberries," says Bradley.

The subpoena was originally sent to his parents. "They're just limited partners [in Sea of Green]," he says. "They don't have access to the records. They were commanded to appear before the grand jury--so they went, and there was no grand jury! Assistant U.S. attorney John Stevens said it was a tactic to make them comply."

Then Bradley received an identical subpoena. He was supposed to rat out his customers on December 2.

He didn't.
The American Civil Liberties Union got him a lawyer, Nick Hentoff, to fight the subpoena. Stevens dropped the subpoena, but told Bradley he was doing so on condition that he cooperate with such requests in the future. So, the deal is that Bradley won't be forced to hand over his customer records as long as he hands over details of specific customers if asked to.

If the request is made, will the store comply? "No," says Sea of Green's operations manager, Kayla Sharp.

Bradley explains, "We don't feel that the government has any right of access to our customer records. I don't even know why they're picking on us--what about Home Depot, Tip Top Nurseries, all the other gardening stores? We're a legitimate operation. We've been in business for six years.

"This is un-American. It's Big Brother tactics."
The ACLU's Eleanor Eisenburg agrees.
"Buying books and buying gardening equipment is not a crime. In our view, by asking the shop to provide the names of people who have purchased these things, they are infringing on the shop owner's proprietary interest in the list, the shop owner's privacy, the First Amendment rights of the shop owner, and the First Amendment and privacy rights of the people who are making these purchases. You can buy this book at Borders. You can buy this gardening equipment at Home Depot or Kmart."

When I called and asked prosecutor John Stevens why the store had been singled out, and why the government wanted the list in the first place, he said he wasn't allowed to comment.

Al Reilly, the Drug Enforcement Administration agent behind it all, never returned my calls. "It was just a fishing expedition," says Nick Hentoff.

Bradley believes that most of his customers buy equipment from him for legit gardening purposes.

"If there are customers who're using it for illegal purposes, we don't condone it," he says. "But it's out of our hands."

Bradley claims that business improved after news accounts of the government's dragnet appeared. "I've had senior citizens come in from Sun City and drop $500 on a hydroponic unit," Bradley says. "Our business about doubled."

While it's entertaining to imagine Sun City as a commune of bong-toking geriatrics, what the customers do with the equipment is not relevant. It wouldn't matter in this issue if every single customer of the store was a drug kingpin (as opposed to the tomato kingpins Bradley says he serves). This issue is about the right to knowledge. The government is attempting to harass these people not for something they're doing, but for something they have the knowledge of how to do.

Thought is not action. On my shelf at home, I have a copy of Mein Kampf. I'm not a Nazi. I have The Communist Manifesto. I'm not a communist. I have books by the Marquis de Sade. I'm not a sadist. I have a book that tells you how to manufacture LSD. I've never done so. I have books that tell you how to blow up cars. I've never done that, either. I have a copy of Brian Masters' The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer. There are passages in the book that could be said to provide graphic instruction on dismembering bodies. There is a passage that describes how you can make a hole in the skull of a living person and pour LSD into his brain, turning him into a zombie. These are things I have never done and never would do. I also have some cookery books, and I'm not a very good cook.

But, if the U.S. District Court officials took a look at my book collection, they'd probably conclude that I was a Nazi, communist, car-bombing, drug-making serial killer who cooks a mean chicken casserole.

It doesn't matter how strongly you feel about people who grow marijuana. This is not about drugs--it's about freedom of discourse, freedom to read and think. When you go to a bookstore, do you want your choice of books to be restricted by a fear of what Big Brother is going to think when he finds out what you bought? Do you want intellectual curiosity to be illegal?

This is not a speculative worst-case scenario--we're already there. The Sea of Green subpoena shouldn't surprise anyone. In Arizona, books are already admissible as evidence in criminal trials. During the trial of Viper member Chuck Knight, his owning a copy of The Anarchist's Cookbook was presented as evidence of his evil intentions.

According to that criteria, I should be in the same cell as Knight, and so should at least half of the college students I know.

Prosecutors in an eco-sabotage case tried to get a signed copy of Edward Abbey's cult novel The Monkey-Wrench Gang entered as evidence against a defendant. The defense fought to keep it out, and won.

If a person has committed a crime, and there is evidence to prove it, then the government has a right to prosecute that person. If there is evidence to prove a person is growing illegal drugs, then the DEA has a right to arrest that person. But when we can be blamed for our knowledge and range of interests, we might as well lower the American flag and run up the hammer and sickle.

Scottsdale police corruption update:
Last week's column reported that the Scottsdale Police Department routinely refuses to allow members of the public to view public records. This is illegal, but the SPD holds the law in contempt, as evidenced by the uniformed hoodlums it hires as officers.

The department's favorite tactic goes something like this: You request access to records and they say okay. Then they give you some irrelevant document--i.e., not the one you asked for. When you complain, they say they'll get the records for you in a timely manner. Then they just refuse to let you see any records at all.

Well, two can play at that game . . .
As I reported four weeks ago, the SPD is being sued by two of its victims. Scottsdale police officers illegally entered the apartment shared by Shawn Casey and John Power, and, without provocation, beat Casey so badly that a terrified Power called 911 to ask for help.

Last week Richard Guerrero, the attorney representing Casey and Power, received a letter from Kathleen Wieneke, the SPD's lawyer, saying that the SPD doesn't have a tape of the 911 call. "If you have a copy of either the tape or the transcript, please provide it to me," she asks Guerrero.

Well, I might be able to help our heroic lawmen here. I have a copy of the tape. And all Mike Anderson, the SPD's head obfuscator, has to do is send me a written request--and I'll send him a tape. I can't say for sure what will be on the tape, but I promise I'll definitely send him a tape.

Meanwhile, Katie Carty, the public defender who's being denied access to SPD records essential to a case she's handling, has been told by Sergeant Chris Bingham of Internal Affairs that she'll have to get a court order to force him to hand over the records.

Does anyone remember the term "public accountability"?

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]

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Barry Graham