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As Malvika Patel picked up her son at a day-care center one afternoon in April 2004, the 38-year-old mother of two was about to become embroiled in Operation Meth Merchant, a federal sting operation. Thirty-five miles away, a federal informant was buying cold tablets from a convenience store clerk he would later identify as Patel. The informant told the clerk, another woman of Indian descent, that he needed the cold tablets to complete a “cook,” a slang term for making methamphetamine. The false identification of Patel, an American citizen who immigrated from India, would lead to her arrest on felony charges that she knowingly sold legal ingredients used to manufacture meth, the illegal drug that has become the scourge of many rural communities. Thanks to the day-care center’s meticulous records, Patel later would show that she was picking up her son at almost the exact moment the cold tablets were being sold. Federal prosecutors would then dismiss the charges. But Patel’s arrest, as well as those of 48 other convenience store owners and clerks in Northwest Georgia — most of them Indian immigrants and all of them selling legal, everyday products such as cold tablets, antifreeze and rock salt — has brought scrutiny on law enforcement’s latest initiative to shut down meth dealers. “We’re trying to stop people from selling legal products they know are going to be used to make illegal products,” explained U.S. Attorney David E. Nahmias.McCracken Poston, Patel’s lawyer, doesn’t think it’s fair to ask convenience store clerks to become drug police. Absent specific laws regulating what can be sold, store clerks — in this case many of whom only speak transactional English — are forced to make what amounts to a legal judgment, often through the filter of American slang, Poston said.”It’s so subjective that it’s dangerous,” the Ringgold lawyer said. “We live in a nation where there should be clear laws where here’s what we can sell, here’s what we can’t sell. When we leave it to the store clerk to make that distinction, we are in trouble.” In Patel’s case, the government’s informant, a convicted thief and forger, had mistakenly identified Patel and her husband as clerks at Tobacco for Less, a Fort Oglethorpe convenience store about 35 miles from several stores the couple own in Tennessee. Patel was arrested and jailed for four days before posting $10,000 bail. Six weeks later, after Poston presented the day care center’s records, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa W. Tarvin asked to dismiss the indictment. U.S. v. Patel, No. 4:05-CR-030 (N.D. Ga. May 10, 2005). Patel’s arrest occurred during the first major investigation in Georgia of store owners and clerks who sell legal merchandise that can be used in the illegal production of methamphetamine, said Nahmias. The 18-month investigation has resulted in the indictment of 49 people and 16 corporations, Patel among them.Using paid confidential informants with criminal records and defendants facing prison time for possessing or manufacturing methamphetamine, undercover drug agents directed the purchase of legal merchandise used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, according to a 200-page search warrant affidavit in the case.Among the purchases scrutinized by drug agents are what Poston, Patel’s lawyer, said could be found “on my dad’s grocery list.” According to signs posted in many of the convenience stores targeted by the South/East Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force, clerks should be wary of frequent or large purchases of any brand of cold tablets containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine (a nasal decongestant). Other products on the watch list, the signs say, include lye, matches, lantern fuel, household ammonia, baking soda, table and rock salt, iodine, antifreeze, brake fluid, engine starter, gun scrubber, MSM (an ingredient often combined with glucosamine and chondroitin in over-the-counter, nonprescription healthy joint tablets), kitty litter, coffee filters, aluminum foil, udder cream, propane tanks, funnels and rubber tubing. Nahmias said the government is going after legal sales because “we’ve learned that one of the best ways to stop the production of methamphetamine is to stop the diversion of legal chemicals and other products used to make meth. We hope anybody who is thinking of doing it stops before they get arrested.”Whether the sale of cold tablets, matches or lye is legal, Nahmias said, depends on intent. Court records associated with Operation Meth Merchant suggest that government buyers tell store clerks they need ingredients to make meth. In the Patel case, the clerk was told that the cold tablets were needed “to finish my cook up.”Poston said the meaning of such slang may have escaped the Indian immigrants arrested in Operation Meth Merchant. Poston said that later, when he asked Patel’s husband, Shirog “Chris” Patel, how he would translate the phrase “finish my cook up,”he replied, “I would have thought that meant a barbecue.” SELECTIVE PROSECUTION? To date, 43 of the 49 individuals swept up in the sting are Indian immigrants, many sharing the common Indian surname Patel, defense attorneys said. The remaining six defendants were employed by Indian convenience store owners, they said. That fact troubles Summerville attorney Bobby Lee Cook, whose firm represents a number of the defendants. “It possibly smells of selective prosecution,” Cook said. “We have people in my county, in Chattooga County, who were selling across the counter the same merchandise in bulk � but they were not charged, they were not raided.” They are white, the lawyer said. Poston added that big-box stores such as Wal-Mart apparently were not targeted. But Nahmias insisted, “We didn’t target anyone. We got information from members of the public and cooperating individuals that these stores were selling what are legal products, allegedly with the knowledge the products were being used to manufacture methamphetamine, which addicts and poisons our community.”The investigation is ongoing and has expanded to include owners and operators of hardware stores, feed stores, pharmacies and any other businesses that sell merchandise used in the production of methamphetamine, Nahmias said.Patel’s arrest was just one of 49 that occurred in six rural Northwest Georgia counties during a massive sweep last month. Nahmias held a news conference in Dalton to announce the multiple indictments. DENIED A PHONE CALLMalvika Patel said she was en route to work when federal agents with a warrant for her arrest arrived at one of her husband’s Cleveland, Tenn., convenience stores, which was not among those investigated by federal authorities. “They took me to the Dalton jail,” she said. From behind a two-way mirror, a government informant identified her as the Indian woman who had sold him two bottles of cold tablets in Fort Oglethorpe 14 months earlier. Patel said in a recent interview that she has never been inside the store that sold the cold tablets, Tobacco for Less. Patel said authorities handcuffed her husband when he arrived at the jail, and held her and other Indian women caught up in the arrests for more than 24 hours before they were allowed to call families or lawyers. “I had been begging them, requesting them, ‘Please let us call,’” she said. “We didn’t know what was happening.”Arrested on a Friday morning, Patel was not permitted to call her husband until Saturday night. She was not released until Monday when he finally was allowed to post her $10,000 bond. Poston would later learn that authorities focused on his client because a van registered to the Patels was parked in front of Tobacco for Less while the government informant was inside. Patel and his business partner in a video-camera-installation business jointly used that van, according to affidavits Poston submitted to federal prosecutors. The business partner was using the van because he was installing a video camera at Tobacco for Less when the confidential informant made his $30 purchase. It was he, not the Patels, who was driving the van that day, said Poston. Nine months passed before the informant identified Malvika Patel from a driver’s license photo. APPROPRIATE TO DISMISSAs recently as July 12, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tarvin informed Poston that there remained unspecified “unanswered questions related to [Malvika Patel's] alibi.” She asked Patel to take an FBI-administered polygraph, and when Poston rejected the idea, Tarvin dismissed the charges the next day. U.S. Attorney Nahmias said given the documentation showing the Patels were not anywhere near the convenience store when the cold tablets were sold, “the appropriate thing to do was dismiss the charges.”But he defended the operation that led to the arrest. And, he insisted, federal prosecutors are adhering to an ethical standard that requires a belief that there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a defendant’s guilt, not just probable cause, before an arrest is made. “If there’s not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that people knew or had reason to believe that the products they sell are going to make illegal drugs, they won’t be convicted,” he said. “Sometimes the evidence changes. Sometimes you decide the evidence wasn’t sufficient. But the ethical standard is belief.”The Patels are still in the convenience-store business, but they have become markedly cautious in what they sell. “We are losing business, losing so much business,” Malvika Patel said. “I can say that we are afraid to sell anything. “If somebody is planning for a barbecue, they are taking all these things together,” she said. In forcing store owners, through investigations such as Operation Meth Merchant, to police legal sales, she said, “we have to make customers mad at us. We are afraid how to do business.”

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