Belinda Dickey knows the Black Drive community that most people don’t see.
It’s the close-knit, “borrow a cup of sugar from your neighbor” type of neighborhood that watches out for each other, a far cry from the portrayals cast on it after a recent drug bust in the area, said Dickey, who was born on Black Drive in 1953 and spent 40 years in the community.
"Every family considered each other family,” Dickey said, adding that her mother still lives on Black Drive. “... Just because there's drug dealing — that's bad — but that doesn't make everybody who lives on that street bad people."
Since the bust on a Gainesville drug operation that the Hall County Sheriff’s Office said brought in $1.4 million per year, Dickey said the traffic has gone quiet again.
"A year ago, you could not even get up and down the street. There were three, four, five cars parked at the drug dealers' houses,” Dickey said.
Sheriff Gerald Couch previously told The Times investigators believe the group had been operating for roughly two years, trafficking more than 60 kilograms of crack cocaine annually.
Couch said investigations into the drug operation kicked off in the summer of 2019 after several anonymous tips about heavy traffic and the possibility of drugs being “sold through the windows of a house located on Black Drive.” The investigation included what officers call a concentrated patrol.
“According to agents, drug dealers at the home averaged a minimum of 20 transactions an hour, from early in the morning (until) late at night, seven days a week,” Couch said.
The sheriff said on Aug. 21 that a typical transaction would entail a person driving or getting a ride to Black Drive, walking up to the house and knocking on the window.
‘Known drug houses’
The Times filed an open records request for the Hall County Sheriff’s Office’s reports on Black and Cooley drives since August 2019, around the time that law enforcement said they began receiving reports about the drug dealing.
Multiple reports from the sheriff’s office say officers noticed people pulling up in front of a “known drug house” or leaving the area.
The Times asked Couch and the sheriff’s office when it became a known drug house, when concentrated patrols began in this area and what is the evidentiary foundation to call a residence a “known drug house” before a traffic stop.
“Deputies may detain an individual in order to conduct an investigation if they reasonably suspect an individual is engaging in criminal conduct,” Sheriff’s Office spokesman Derreck Booth wrote in an emailed response. “This is commonly known as reasonable suspicion, which is less stringent than probable cause. Reasonable suspicion allows a deputy to briefly detain a person who may be in the process of committing a crime, or may have already committed a crime or may be planning to commit one.”
Booth said it rises to probable cause when “it becomes obvious a crime has most likely been committed.” The totality of the circumstances is considered when determining if the officer had reasonable suspicion, he said
“As an example, you see signs posted for a birthday. You see balloons at the house, cars at the home, people bringing in wrapped gifts, people wearing party hats and you hear music and laughter coming from the backyard of the house,” Booth said. “While the party is in the back of the home, and you don’t see the actual party itself, there is enough information available where a reasonable person would believe a birthday party is going on.”
Booth said it was hard to pinpoint when exactly homes on Black Drive were considered a “known” drug location, noting the investigation had been going on for at least a year. The concentrated patrols “generally align” with the time the investigation started, which was the summer of 2019, Booth said.
Reports from the time show traffic and pedestrian stops initiated after officers observed people traveling to and from these locations.
One officer was conducting a concentrated patrol Oct. 13, 2019, on Black Drive and noticed a vehicle pull into a driveway on Black Drive, which the officer noted as a “known boarding/drug house.”
The officer saw the car leave after a short period of time and followed the car to make a traffic stop, according to the report.
Though the officer said the stop was for no tag lights, the officer asked the driver “what she was doing near the drug house.” The driver said she was dropping someone off.
Two officers responded Nov. 5, 2019, to a call of a woman walking from a house known to sell drug paraphernalia. The woman said she was in the neighborhood to see her son, though both officers “witnessed her walking from the drug house,” according to the report.
She was handcuffed after trying to walk away from the officers, and she reportedly started to physically resist the two officers. The officers searched her and found two crack cocaine pipes and a crack cocaine rock, according to the report.
Five days after this incident, an officer saw another car pull up into a Black Drive driveway considered a “known drug house” and performed a traffic stop on Cooley Drive for a canceled car registration.
How a traffic stop becomes a drug search
Assistant public defenders Matt Leipold and Chris van Rossem said an officer observing someone coming from a “known drug house” would likely not be enough to detain someone.
“A lot of people feel like they just have to answer any question that a police officer asks them, and that’s not true,” van Rossem said. “That’s not the case.”
Leipold said officers, however, are allowed to stop someone for a suspected traffic violation even if their actual goal is to investigate potential drugs.
“The other side of that coin is when they stop you, they have to diligently pursue the purpose of the stop. … It’s kind of a weird tension in the law there where the Supreme Court has sort of sanctioned these so-called pretextual stops, in the sense that they are allowed as long as there is a legitimate traffic-enforcement purpose,” Leipold said. “But at the same time, the officer has to actually pursue that legitimate purpose.”
If the officer then learns something while pursuing the “legitimate purpose” to develop probable cause for drugs being in the car, Leipold said there is an automobile exception to the law on warrants for searching the vehicle.
Police cannot prolong the stop in the hopes of developing probable cause, Leipold said.
‘We were just going home’
Irene Lipscomb, the co-chair of the Newtown Florist Club’s criminal justice reform project, spoke at a recent Zoom community conversation about living in a part of town considered a “high-drug area.” The event was hosted to highlight the “devastating impact” of drug busts in Black communities.
“We had to explain that we live here or our grandparents, our grandmother lives here or that we were just going home in order for us to get away from the police, because they felt as if we were selling drugs or we were coming to get drugs in that area,” Lipscomb said.
When Dickey was growing up, she said most of the neighborhood was made up of homeowners, not renters. As people have moved and the older generations have died, that has started to change, she said.
"It's a very quiet, nice neighborhood now that the drug dealing has gone, but we don't want that to happen again,” Dickey said.
She said she and others are now concerned about “slumlords” renting properties to people who they should have known were potentially dealing drugs.
"If you've got 20 cars an hour and you come and collect rent, you see it,” Dickey said. “You know it. It was no secret."