Was Lightning in a Bottle Unfairly Targeted by the Police?
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.