The electronic music and arts festival Lightning in a Bottle moved to a new location this year, in Temecula, and while many of the 15,000 or so attendees reported having a great time, many took to message boards and other forums to complain of being targeted by the police.
Perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise for an event with ties to drug culture, nor should the 58 arrests that occurred during its five day run earlier this month. But because the majority of these arrests were made not by the Temecula Police, but by undercover officers from the Special Investigations Bureau — a Riverside-county based task force meant to squash narcotics and vice-related issues in the area — many involved with the festival are crying foul. In interviews, stories from those arrested for drugs (mostly guys under 30) tend to follow a particular arc:
The attendee is hanging out at a campsite or stage when approached by a man he will later learn is an undercover agent, and asked for weed, molly, or cocaine. Owing to the, um, free-spirited nature of the festival, the attendee offers up the drugs for free, at which point the agent proceeds to stuff $20-$40 in bills in their pocket, put them in their hand or simply throw it at them. When the attendee “accepts” the cash, uniformed officers appear and arrest them.
Says one arrestee, who wishes to remain anonymous:
I was surrounded by three overly-aggressive men who handcuffed me and led me with unnecessary force to the on-site Sheriff's station. I told them I wasn't resisting as they marched me embarrassingly through the festival grounds. My arms were jacked up behind my back and I could barely walk fast enough without being sped up and twisted harder. One cop literally held down my neck's pressure points until I began to yell in pain, demanding they identify themselves so other festival-goers could hear it. I was told “Shut the fuck up, you should have thought twice before selling drugs”.
(Our contact with the Riverside Sheriff's office, Deputy Alberto Martinez, says he doesn't know specifics about the individual arrests and can't respond to allegations.)
The bulk of those arrested by undercover officers were charged with sales of a controlled substance — which can happen even for simply giving drugs away, as was apparently often the case at Lightning in a Bottle. (No exchange of money is required.) Many bails were set at upwards of $30,000, with 10 percent of that sum from a bail bond required for release.
Lightning in a Bottle organizers say that while they worked closely with the Temecula Police and Fire Department in preparation for the festival, they were not informed that an undercover agency would have a presence at the event. No such presence was reported at the festival in previous years.
“We don't condone drug use, nor the breaking of any laws, in fact our festival has a long history of positive relations between the necessary law enforcement presence and the festival attendees,” says festival publicist Russell Ward. “We had no reason to believe this year would be any different, but hearing the reports of how people were treated and handled has us concerned.”
The Temecula Police, for their part, told us that their experience with Lightning in a Bottle was largely positive, calling fans “mellow, nice and respectful.” But attendees we spoke to, many of whom spent several nights in the Temecula jail, didn't believe the respect went both ways. They repeatedly overheard officers calling attendees “hippie ravers” and “brain dead retards.”
“They were sadistic,” says Adam Joseph Neville, who spent five nights in jail after being arrested on Friday evening for selling marijuana to an undercover officer.
Adds our anonymous source: “Guards at the Southwest Detention Center got their kicks mocking those arrested about their dreadlocks and our 'hippie rave.' Or laughed and called us babies after we complained that our wrists bled from handcuffs.” Another report said that jail cells were overcrowded and had feces on the floor.
To be sure, sprawling music festivals are a tricky thing to regulate in California circa 2013. After all, marijuana possession is quasi-legal, and Lightning in a Bottle in particular is known for drawing relaxed, spiritual-minded attendees who know how to handle their drugs.
Nonetheless, much of what was being consumed there was unquestionably illegal, and to expect the police to turn an entirely blind eye seems to be asking a lot.
Temecula authorities say they were simply trying to keep people safe. “It wasn't because it was a crazy event where we expected a lot of violence that we had a lot of officers out there,” says Alberto Martinez of the Riverside Sheriff's Office. “It's considered a family event, so if we have people who are selling drugs at a family event, it's always a success [to make narcotics arrests] because those are drugs that could have gotten to children.”
Counters Lightning in a Bottle publicist Russell Ward: “It's reasonable to have them there to support us in our goal to give everyone a safe and enjoyable experience. When that stops being the case and people start to feel threatened it's our responsibility to our loyal attendees to ask why.”
Many of those arrested complain of “entrapment,” but according to Cameron Bowman, an attorney at San Jose firm Valencia, Ippolito & Bowman, that's not exactly the case. “[Entrapment] is a really confusing area of the law,” he says. “The standard is whether or not law enforcement caused a normally law abiding person to commit a crime.”
Bowman says the law becomes murky when a police officer appeals to “friendship or sympathy” as a tactic. “The standard here is if law enforcement is engaging in something where they're basically causing the crime to happen.” In the bulk of the Lightning in a Bottle cases, however, since those arrested already possessed drugs, entrapment wouldn't apply. “Law enforcement would say, 'All we were doing was providing an opportunity for people who were selling marijuana to sell it to us.'”
Several of the men arrested were carrying marijuana cards, which allows for the possession of pot for medical reasons. Under California state law, carrying under an ounce of marijuana without a card is an infraction, basically the legal equivalent of a speeding ticket. Transporting, selling or giving it away, however, is a felony.
Others have complained that the police presence was disproportionate to the size of the festival. Lightning in a Bottle organizers spent $80,000 on law enforcement, and $20,000 on fire safety. By comparison, the Temecula Balloon and Wine festival, which is held in late spring at the same location, the Lake Skinner Recreational area, and hosts upwards of 20,000 attendees, spent $3,200 on law enforcement for this years' event.
Perhaps the root of the problem? This past June, the Riverside County Sherriff received a $175,000 grant from the DEA, funds earmarked for the sheriff's Special Investigations Bureau.
According to Bowman, once a specialized agency like this one receives such a grant, there is “a great deal of pressure within the agency to justify their existence. The main way that they justify their continued existence and funding is by arrests. They have to be doing things proactively to show why they exist. I'm guessing that this is what's at work here.”
While Deputy Martinez declined to say specifically why the Special Investigations Bureau was deployed to Lightning in a Bottle, he noted that when the agency receives information that narcotics might be sold in a location, it responds accordingly.
Bowman adds that authorities have no legal responsibility to inform festival organizers that a task force like this one might show up. “To me it's tricky,” Bowman says, “on the one hand, law enforcement has a legitimate interest in keeping people safe at any festival. On the other hand, music festivals are where people go to have fun in a way that maybe wouldn't be as accepted in a normal nine to five world. It's always weird to me when law enforcement jumps in and starts making a bunch of arrests for drug offenses that everyone who at that festival is not being bothered by or unsafe by.”
“Who exactly is being protected here,” he says, “is always a question I have in my mind.”
Additional reporting by Josh “CuriousJosh” Reiss