High Desert Highwaymen: More Scenes from the Drug War in Treasure Valley

In his private life, Justin Klitch of Payette, Idaho may be kind, personable, generous, and compulsively honest. While on the clock, however, he’s a professional thug – in the original sense of the expression.

The Thugs of India were a nomadic, secretive order of highway robbers notorious for gaining the confidence of travelers before ambushing, plundering, and sometimes killing them. Klitch plays a similar role as a patrol officer with the Idaho State Police, conducting pretext stops of drivers in order to search their vehicles for drugs or large amounts of cash. He does this in the tacit but provable hope of justifying the “forfeiture” – that is, the theft – of their vehicles and anything else of value he and his comrades can find.

A third-generation ISP officer, Klitch patrols an area laden with potential lucre, a stretch of I-84 in western Idaho bordering Oregon, where medicinal marijuana use is legal. Forty percent of all pot confiscated in Idaho is medicinal marijuana legally obtained in Oregon. Kendall Jeffs, a medical marijuana user who lives in western Idaho, describes the anxious trip home from Oregon as being akin to “crossing the Berlin Wall. It’s like going into another country.”

Klitch’s function is comparable to that of an East German border guard, and the routine he follows in identifying and preying upon travelers was widely publicized when one of his victims, Washington businessman Darien Roseen, filed a lawsuit against the trooper and several of his comrades.

As recounted in the lawsuit, in January 2013 Klitch conducted a pretext stop of Roseen, who had attracted the costumed predator’s[amazon asin=0979985900&template=*lrc ad (right)] attention by driving a vehicle with Colorado license plates. Colorado is one of two states that have largely decriminalized the recreational use of marijuana. The other is Washington. Roseen, a retired real estate executive, lives in Washington and has a second residence in Colorado.

On the day he was waylaid by Klitch at a roadside rest stop, Roseen was driving a late-model pickup truck en route to Colorado with a cargo of gifts for a baby shower. Klitch – who was lurking beside the interstate listening to 1980s “hair metal” — noticed the plate, aggressively trailed Roseen into the rest stop, and saw the driver – flustered and probably annoyed by the tailgating trooper — bump against the curb in the parking lot. Having contrived a pretext for a traffic stop, Klitch triumphantly activated his lights and siren.

Klitch demanded to know why Roseen had pulled into the rest area, a question he was not legally entitled to ask and one Roseen was not legally obliged to answer. When the victim explained that he needed to go to the bathroom, the implacable predator – implicitly claiming the power of clairvoyance – insisted: “You didn’t have to go to the bathroom before you saw me – I’m telling  you, you pulled in here to avoid me. That’s exactly what you did.”

Avoiding a police officer is always a good idea, and doing so is not evidence of criminal behavior or intent. Klitch’s behavior validated the belief that innocent people should do whatever is necessary to avoid an encounter with a cop.

The trooper demanded Roseen’s license, which he glanced at while interrogating the victim about his occupation and activities – questions, once again, the driver was not required to answer.  He accused Roseen of having “glassy eyes,” barraged him with leading questions, and pelted him with accusatory remarks.

Without running Roseen’s license, or citing probable cause of any kind, Klitch announced that he would be conducting a drug sweep with a police canine. He then bulldozed the intimidated driver – over his initial and repeated objections –into allowing a warrantless search of the vehicle’s trunk.

The instant Roseen opened the trunk, Klitch lied – or, to use his occupation’s preferred expression, exercised his “prerogative to use artifice” – by pretending that he could smell a “strong odor of marijuana” and that this unsupported claim gave him probable cause to search the vehicle and its contents. He announced that he was abducting —  or, to use his euphemism, “detaining” – Roseen, placing him in the back seat of his patrol car and not permitting him to call an attorney. At this point Klitch turned off his vehicle’s dashboard camera and began to rifle through Roseen’s truck while an accomplice to the crime, Sgt. Eric Christensen from the Fruitland Police Department, arrived to assist.

The 68-year-old man, who had no criminal record of any kind, was helpless as Klitch and Christensen hijacked his truck, taking it to the “sally port” of the Payette County Sheriff’s Office. Roseen was told he was free to leave – but that his vehicle and property would remain in the custody of the violent armed strangers who had ambushed him. For several hours Roseen was held hostage while at least seven officers ransacked his truck and pawed through his property. Despite mangling and mutilating Roseen’s belongings, no contraband was found.

Roseen survived the encounter with Klitch and his fellow thugs, but before being set free he was handed a ransom note in the form of a spurious citation for “inattentive driving” – an infraction Roseen supposedly committed by coming to an abrupt stop against the curb in the parking space after Klitch rode his bumper all the way into the rest area.

In entirely predictable fashion, the ISP has invoked the pernicious principle of official impunity – more commonly called “qualified immunity”– in demanding that Roseen’s lawsuit be dismissed. The trooper himself appears to have been ordered into purdah: He has ignored  my repeated requests for comment about his conduct during the encounter, particularly his decision to turn off the dashcam rather than recording what he insists was a perfectly legal and routine search of Roseen’s vehicle.

Such reticence is unusual for Klitch, who was something of a media darling until one of his victims fought back.

A July 2012 AP story described Klitch as an embattled paladin of public order on the Oregon-Idaho border. A few months earlier he was briefly profiled in a report by a Boise TV newscast that was a shameless valentine to his father Shawn Klitch, who was retiring from the ISP after three decades. Justin’s grandfather was also an ISP officer; another grandfather was a city cop in Ohio, and his mother has been a “correctional officer” at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Oregon.[amazon asin=0964567903&template=*lrc ad (right)]

After trying unsuccessfully to find honest work in the productive sector, Justin decided to follow his parents and grandparents into the family business. Currently being paid $52,000 a year (a very healthy salary by local standards), Klitch is six years into what will probably be a lucrative career – unless it is brought to an end by Roseen’s lawsuit, or a subsequent one filed by another of his victims. One woman who was on the receiving end of Klitch’s attentions has accused him of misconduct serious enough to merit not only a civil suit, but criminal prosecution.

“He, during a traffic stop, stood in front of the camera, with his back to the police car, and me in front of him, without a female officer present, searched my body for drugs,” the woman (who requested that her name not be used) recounted to me. Klitch allegedly “put his hands under my bra, and brushed both of my nipples with the backs of his fingers. He already had my significant other in custody in the back of the police car. If I said a word, at the time, my man would probably still be in jail.”

Klitch “sexually violated me,” the woman contends, “and the way he did it – I can only assume he had done it before, he was slick about it…. When I talked to another police officer about what I could do, I was told to move out of Idaho.”

relayed the woman’s allegations to Klitch, who declined to comment about them.

The woman remains understandably terrified of Klitch, whom she describes as a “one of those `mad dog’ officers who will justify [their] behavior, no matter what…. I feel that I am just one of many people that this man has abused.”  She isn’t willing to leave the state to avoid him, but is keeping a very low profile in order to avoid bringing “heat to myself or family.” Clinging to a fraying thread of ingenuous trust in the institution of law enforcement, she insists that Klitch’s “abuse of power shames the rest of Idaho’s state troopers.”

That assessment is excessively generous. The Idaho State Police – particularly Patrol District 3 –works very closely with the High Desert Drug Enforcement Task Force (HDDE),  a federally subsidized, multi-jurisdictional entity that includes law enforcement agencies on both sides of the Idaho-Oregon border. As I’ve reported previously, the HDDE routinely coordinates pretext stops of Idaho-bound vehicles in order to conduct drug searches and property seizures.

The task force’s most notable accomplishment in recent years was the prosecution of sixteen people who belonged to the 45th Parallel, a medical marijuana co-op in Ontario, Oregon. That operation began with several pretext stops carried out against the co-op’s founder, Bill Esbensen, by officers from three different law enforcement agencies – the Oregon State Police, Payette County Sheriff’s Office, and the Idaho State Police.

In March 2012, Esbensen, a used car dealer who was driving a camper to Boise for delivery to a buyer, was swarmed at the border of Canyon County by a throng of state police, sheriff’s deputies, and DEA agents. The lead officer, State Trooper Christopher Cottrell, followed exactly the same script used by Klitch, insisting that he “smelled a strong odor of marijuana” emanating from the vehicle. A search by a drug dog failed to confirm Cottrell’s mendacious claim, but a patently illegal search of a sealed briefcase produced a single joint.[amazon asin=1881919056&template=*lrc ad (right)]

Despite the fact that possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor in Idaho, Esbensen (who had a medical marijuana card) was arrested, and his briefcase – which contained detailed financial and membership information about the medical marijuana co-op – was illegally opened, and its contents copied.

The information wound up in the hands of Boise-based DEA agent Dustin T. Bloxham, who – acting beyond his jurisdiction – targeted the 45th Parallel for a sting operation.  Esbensen and his partner, Raymond Kangas, were convicted following a bench trial of “delivering marijuana for consideration,” although their actions most likely would not be prosecutable under Oregon’s revised medical marijuana statute. They are immured in the Malheur County Jail awaiting sentencing, which is scheduled for June 23.

Bill Esbensen was not the only member of his family targeted by the task force. His wife Diane, who had no connection to the 45th Parallel, was subjected to the same multi-layered harassment – three pretext stops by officers from three different agencies on both sides of the border – while driving from Ontario to Boise in early May.

“They did the same thing at each stop — they pulled me over and demanded to search the car,” Mrs. Esbensen told me in an interview at the Malheur County Courthouse during her husband’s trial. “They kept asking me accusatory questions. After the second stop my son, who was in the passenger seat, told me, `They’re going to stop us again’ – and a few minutes later, they did. I was very frustrated and intimidated, especially after what happened to Bill.”

All of the evidence presented by the prosecution in the 45th Parallel was collected by the HDDE, which refused to disclose the identities, qualifications, and activities of its constituent officers. The task force is literally a secret police organization – or, what is much the same thing, a band of highwaymen.

“The government does not … waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the road side, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets,” wrote 19th century abolitionist Lysander Spooner, describing the difference between a government agent and a highwayman. “But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful… [H]aving taken your money, [the highwayman] leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will, assuming to be your rightful `sovereign,’ on account of the `protection’ he affords you.”

Few if any have been more perceptive than Spooner in analyzing and describing the depravity of government. In this case, however, Spooner’s imagination actually fell short of anticipating the conduct of Justin Klitch and his comrades in the War on Drugs, who are government-licensed highwaymen authorized to prey upon innocent travelers, and kill any who resist their unwanted attention.