United States Customs and Border Protection agents waiting to inspect cars at Nogales, Ariz., an area where marijuana smuggling has been active.
By MARC LACEY
PHOENIX — Border Patrol agents pursue smugglers one moment and sit around in boredom the next. It was during one of the lulls that Bryan Gonzalez, a young agent, made some comments to a colleague that cost him his career.
Stationed in Deming, N.M., Mr. Gonzalez was in his green-and-white Border Patrol vehicle just a few feet from the international boundary when he pulled up next to a fellow agent to chat about the frustrations of the job. If marijuana were legalized, Mr. Gonzalez acknowledges saying, the drug-related violence across the border in Mexico would cease. He then brought up an organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition that favors ending the war on drugs.
Those remarks, along with others expressing sympathy for illegal immigrants from Mexico, were passed along to the Border Patrol headquarters in Washington. After an investigation, a termination letter arrived that said Mr. Gonzalez held “personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps.”
After his dismissal, Mr. Gonzalez joined a group even more exclusive than the Border Patrol: law enforcement officials who have lost their jobs for questioning the war on drugs and are fighting back in the courts.
In Arizona, Joe Miller, a probation officer in Mohave County, near the California border, filed suit last month in Federal District Court after he was dismissed for adding his name to a letter by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which is based in Medford, Mass., and known as LEAP, expressing support for the decriminalization of marijuana.
“More and more members of the law enforcement community are speaking out against failed drug policies, and they don’t give up their right to share their insight and engage in this important debate simply because they receive government paychecks,” said Daniel Pochoda, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which is handling the Miller case.
Mr. Miller was one of 32 members of LEAP who signed the letter, which expressed support for a California ballot measure that failed last year that would have permitted recreational marijuana use. Most of the signers were retired members of law enforcement agencies, who can speak their minds without fear of action by their bosses. But Mr. Miller and a handful of others who were still on the job — including the district attorney for Humboldt County in California and the Oakland city attorney — signed, too.
LEAP has seen its membership increase significantly from the time it was founded in 2002 by five disillusioned officers. It now has an e-mail list of 48,000, and its members include 145 judges, prosecutors, police officers, prison guards and other law enforcement officials, most of them retired, who speak on the group’s behalf.
“No one wants to be fired and have to fight for their job in court,” said Neill Franklin, a retired police officer who is LEAP’s executive director. “So most officers are reluctant to sign on board. But we do have some brave souls.”
Mr. Miller was accused of not making clear that he was speaking for himself and not the probation department while advocating the decriminalization of cannabis. His lawsuit, though, points out that the letter he signed said at the bottom, “All agency affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.”
He was also accused of dishonesty for denying that he had given approval for his name to appear on the LEAP letter. In the lawsuit, Mr. Miller said that his wife had given approval without his knowledge, using his e-mail address, but that he had later supported her.
Kip Anderson, the court administrator for the Superior Court in Mohave County, said there was no desire to limit Mr. Miller’s political views.
“This isn’t about legalization,” Mr. Anderson said. “We’re not taking a stand on that. We just didn’t want people to think he was speaking on behalf of the probation department.”
Mr. Miller, who is also a retired police officer and Marine, lost an appeal of his dismissal before a hearing officer. But when his application for unemployment benefits was turned down, he appealed that and won. An administrative law judge found that Mr. Miller had not been dishonest with his bosses and that the disclaimer on the letter was sufficient.
In the case of Mr. Gonzalez, the fired Border Patrol agent, he had not joined LEAP but had expressed sympathy with the group’s cause. “It didn’t make sense to me why marijuana is illegal,” he said. “To see that thousands of people are dying, some of whom I know, makes you want to look for a change.”