Pedaling drugs

Is Sacramento’s cycle of bike crimes and misdemeanors a never-ending game of law enforcement vs. tweakers tag?

Christopher Allen Fontaine should be used to taking wrong turns.

On probation since Dubya’s first term, the hard-luck 28-year-old was grinding his bike down the wrong side of a Rancho Cordova street when a patrol cruiser’s piercing squawk signaled that an all-too-familiar humbling was at hand.

The hound-eyed probationer, halted for the moving violation on May 22, had his person and possessions searched by two of the Sacramento County’s finest. Deputies found a glass pipe in his backpack and a plastic bag containing crunchy crystal meth in the front pocket of his pants. The pipe’s spout was caked with white and black residue.

Soon, the docile Fontaine was handcuffed and headed for his 12th tangle with the county’s criminal-justice system—and local law enforcement had turned yet another bicycle stop into a drug arrest.

Within law-enforcement circles, it’s an accepted maxim that tweakers travel by two wheels. “The simple fact is that there is just an inherent association between meth users and bicycles,” explained Deputy Jason Ramos, spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

That may be unsettling to a proud cycling haven such as Sacramento, but the logic—and mounting anecdotal evidence—is sound.

Fontaine, for instance, was the sheriff department’s sixth May arrest that began with a bicycle stop and ended with unrelated drug charges. And city of Sacramento police reports cite at least a dozen—but likely more—bike arrests that led to additional, more serious charges.

According to agency records and interviews with law-and-order types, stopping bicyclists for traffic violations and arresting them for drug possession or other crimes isn’t unusual.

“We get these cases weekly,” said Karen Flynn, chief assistant public defender for the county. She added that such arrests have been common her entire 25 years with the office.

“Unfortunately, it appears that a large number of people riding bikes past 10 p.m. at night do seem to have a small amount of drugs on them,” Flynn shared. “It is always a small amount. I have not known of any big drug busts on a bike.”

As sketchy as this may sound to some, law-enforcement officials say it’s a fair and legal way of taking repeat drug offenders and small-time traffickers off the streets.

“I know that some people hearing this might take exception to it, or think it’s ‘underhanded,’ ‘sneaky,’” Ramos acknowledged. “But I keep it real and tell it like it is. I always say, ‘If someone doesn’t want to be stopped by law enforcement, don’t give law enforcement any reason to stop you.’”

Fair enough. But in reality, this drama between keen patrol officers and bobble-eyed riders doesn’t amount to a whole lot. Cops legally can—and are—pulling over drug-addled bicyclists for moving violations and busting them for holding. The courts can—and are—pleading these cases out at a swift clip. And the offenders can—and are—swapping brief jail visits and extended probation terms for the opportunity to ride again.

Fontaine and the rest get churned through a system that doesn’t have the space to incarcerate them or the means to rehabilitate them. The cycle continues. The wheels keep spinning.

Probable flaws

Of all the stereotypes attributed to your average tweaker, “preferred mode of transportation” is probably way down the list past “Skeletor cheekbones” and “Iggy Pop physique.”

Yet the bicycle has become the meth consumer’s most trusted friend. It’s cheaper and less obtrusive than a car, and, perhaps most importantly, less prone to enforcement stops for any number of the California Vehicle Code’s probable-cause-friendly violations.

Law enforcement is hip to this anecdotal trend, however, and has taken to using a flexible reading of the CVC doorstop bible to conduct traffic stops.

“The California Vehicle Code is a very large book, and there are so many violations that someone can commit while riding a bicycle,” Ramos noted. These violations, he added, amount to probable cause for the officer to detain and search.

The month of May in Sacramento saw many of these incidents. Fontaine, of course, who was stopped and cuffed for meth possession. And, on the night of May 11, deputies trawling Rancho Cordova’s suburban sprawl stopped 42-year-old Dorian Keith McCants for “a vehicle-code violation” and arrested the probationer for having 20 oblong Hydrocodone pills.

And still, more: Shortly after midnight on May 6, deputies stopped Dana Goodman for riding her bicycle on a public sidewalk in a Rosemont housing tract. A sheriff’s department incident report states the arresting officer recognized the 47-year-old probationer from several prior contacts. A Ziploc bag pulled from Goodman’s coin pocket reportedly contained crystal meth.

Two nights earlier, on May 4, Jina Marie Woolley, 52, made the double mistake of riding her bike down the wrong side of the street without a light. When deputies picked her up at the mouth of a cluttered residential enclave in Rancho Cordova, they discovered she had two outstanding misdemeanor arrest warrants and found a bag of crystal meth and smoking pipe in her duffle bag.

Just a few hours earlier that same Friday, a black male matching the description of “a wanted subject” was spotted pedaling against the flow of traffic southbound on the field-abutted thoroughfare near Mather Airport. The arresting deputy’s incident report states that Antwan Martel Johnson “appeared to be under the influence of a stimulant.” During a pat-down search, a glass pipe and bindle of methamphetamine were found.

Finally, in a North Highlands neighborhood the night of May 2, deputies stopped 51-year-old Frankie Koen for riding his bicycle without proper reflective equipment. The probationer was arrested for having a bag of crystal meth stuffed in his pocket.

Every one of these suspects had prior contact with local law enforcement. None of them were charged for the vehicle-code violations that led to their stops.

“[T]hat’s just how it’s done,” Flynn said. “Is it legal? Yeah, it is.”

Her office does bring motions to suppress, under Penal Code section 1538, arguing that the stops were for the purpose of harassment or targeting minorities.

“We don’t usually win those motions,” Flynn added, “but we do bring them.”

Sacramento Police Department officials say their agency also claims a sizable number of drug arrests off of bicycle pullovers. “Quite a few stops that we have related to bicycle stops relate to drugs,” said spokesman Sgt. Andrew Pettit.

You just wouldn’t know this from the information made available to the public.

The department’s daily online activity logs do not explicitly mention every instance where officers stop someone on a bicycle, Pettit acknowledged. Oftentimes, reports only read that a “suspect was contacted and arrested for amphetamine,” he explained.

Yet even with that, city online documents mention 12 bicycle-related interventions in May. One included a bust for methamphetamine possession and several involved arrests of probation violators and individuals with outstanding warrants. A couple of bicyclists were robbery suspects.

And then there was the “suspicious subject” reported to police on May 8, for wheeling past a kid on a red beach-cruiser bike without his pants.

While stats for drug-charging bike stops within the city remain elusive, Pettit says you don’t really need them to say they’re a common occurrence.

“These [stops] are usually in high-crime neighborhoods during the nighttime hours,” he said, and often involve individuals known to police.

Counting the May 8 arrest of a man who fled the scene of a Rancho Cordova convenience store robbery on a bike, the sheriff’s department’s tally of seven bike-related arrests breaks down as: four white individuals (including two females) and three black males. Of the three times that race was listed in the city’s online activity reports, it referred to two white males and one Hispanic male.

Spinning wheels

Perhaps a subtler, more relevant issue than race has to do with why this is happening.

None of those arrested by the sheriff’s department faces any serious time. Fontaine was found guilty of one count of misdemeanor drug possession on May 29; he was sentenced to 30 days in jail and charged $120 in restitution fines, according to court documents. McCants, who was nailed for the Hydrocodone pills, traded a May 29 no-contest plea on one reduced count of felony drug possession for a five-year probation stint and a round of drug rehabilitation.

Repeat offender McCants—online court records show 14 other criminal cases dating back to 1989—was also ordered to pay $655 in related fines and fees.

“Clients accept plea bargains on these cases because they can get far less than the maximum, and they don’t want to risk getting more time,” said Flynn. “We are constantly monitoring the probable cause of stops, whether there was a reason to stop the person. But for the most part, there generally is.”

Still, when it comes to a crazily destructive narcotic that’s only growing in prevalence, the meager ends aren’t doing all that much to justify the wily means.

“Aside from the ubiquitous marijuana, meth is by far the most pervasive controlled substance that we deal with in the Sacramento area,” Ramos said. “Meth is everywhere.”

Charging the more serious drug offense and forgetting about the moving violation is supposed to keep the legal system honest, and make sure Suspect X doesn’t plead down to a “lesser-included offense” such as biking on the sidewalk, say both Ramos and Pettit.

But the reality doesn’t amount to much more than a bureaucratic game of catch and release. These small-guppy drug offenders wheel through a system that can no longer house their numbers, treat their addiction or accommodate their tragic individual circumstances. Within no time at all, they’re back to playing tag with the very cops that jacked them off their wheel to begin with.

The thing about tag is that it’s a game that never ends.