ATLANTA – Prosecutors and police zeroed in on convenience stores owned by South Asians while ignoring white-owned stores during a sweeping crackdown on methamphetamine production, the American Civil Liberties Union contends.
The motion, filed Wednesday, says that authorities selectively targeted South Asians during an 18-month investigation that aimed to curb the sale of household products used to manufacture meth.
"They're targeting people who don't make meth, they don't use meth and they don't sell meth," said Christina Alvarez, an ACLU attorney handling the case. "People should be concerned that the government is continuing to blatantly scapegoat certain segments of society."
Prosecutors deny the allegations.
The ACLU hopes the filing will prompt a judge to toss out the case against dozens of South Asian merchants indicted last year in Operation Meth Merchant, a sting designed to send a message to retailers knowingly selling meth-related products to drug makers.
Beginning in early 2004, 15 undercover agents were sent to small grocery stores, tobacco shops and delis in six remote northwest Georgia counties.
Once there, prosecutors said the informants were sold products ranging from antifreeze to pseudoephedrine even after the informants told the clerks — sometimes using slang terms — that they planned to make meth.
The investigation raised eyebrows, though, when 44 of the 49 retail clerks and convenience store owners indicted were South Asian. All but one of the 24 implicated stores were owned by South Asians.
In an area where roughly 20 percent of the 600 retailers are owned by South Asians, critics said authorities were "scapegoating" minorities.
Prosecutors said federal law makes clear that it is illegal for merchants to sell products knowing — or with reason to believe — that they could be used to produce drugs.
Although a few of the cases have been tossed out, several have yielded guilty pleas and others are headed to trial, said David Nahmias, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. His office would not disclose an exact number, however, because cases are still ongoing.
In a statement, Nahmias denied claims that prosecutors intentionally targeted South Asian merchants and said attorneys were assessing each case on its own merits.