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Archive for Sunday, July 14, 2002

Former AG recalls Amtrak raid

July 14, 2002

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Getting a good, stiff drink in Kansas once required more contrivance and effort than it now does.

Today, especially in the more populated, wetter parts of Kansas, there's an entire generation that never knew or perhaps has forgotten the term "set-up" or how difficult it once was to get a martini or Seagrams-and-7.

For several years before voters approved county-option liquor-by-the-drink in 1986, drinks stronger than 3.2 beer were legally sold only in private clubs to members.

There were flagrant violations of the law. But there were fewer after Vern Miller became attorney general in 1971.

Miller, a former Wichita motorcycle cop who earned his law degree while working as the Sedgwick County sheriff, was a stickler for even application of the law. That fussiness once led him to raid the club car of an Amtrak train in Newton during the train crew's night stop to take on passengers.

The Amtrak raid resulted from Miller's insistence on equal application of the law.

"The bus people came in from Greyhound and Continental and said they wanted to put bars in the buses. I said, 'Fellas, you can't do that. That's against the law in Kansas.'

"They said, 'Amtrak does it and they're our competition.' So I asked my (staff) attorneys and they said yes, they shouldn't be doing it, but there's nothing we can do about it. I called Amtrak in D.C. and the guy laughed and referred me to an Amtrak attorney in New York. He said, 'You got to be kidding. This is a congressionally created operation. What are you going to do about it? File an injunction, see if it doesn't take you 10 years to get it through court.' I said all right.

"I hung up the phone and told my attorneys, we're going to treat Amtrak like we treat a bootlegger, arrest them and put them in jail. All the lawyers' mouths just fell open.

"I put agents on board in Kansas City. In Newton, they pointed out who served the liquor and we arrested them. It was three or four colored guys. I put the conductor in jail, too. He was great big. I thought he was going to fight. He was really mad.

The judge came down that night and let the black guys out on OR (own recognizance) bonds. But the conductor wouldn't go. He said, 'Hell no, I'm staying in jail. I want my day in court.' Amtrak had to fly a conductor down from Chicago to take the train on. Then immediately those New York lawyers got an injunction to keep me from raiding any more trains.

"The judges held in my favor and said he can raid whenever he wants to. It was a state's law question. Amtrak had to quit. Then the airlines came into my office asking what I was going to do. They quit."

Miller also was known for his drug raids.

"I admit some of the guys we used to buy drugs weren't that savory," Miller said. "But they could sure buy lots of drugs."

Miller now works as a criminal defense attorney. He says that experience has made him reconsider the stern stances he took as a prosecutor.

"I think a lot of people in prison right now ought to be in rehabilitation," Miller said. "This drug problem has got clear out of hand. I have problems with them sending people to prison anymore for possession of drugs. Users need counseling. Sellers ought to go.

"A lot of crime happens because of poverty, people stealing and writing fraudulent checks to feed their families. Years ago, I was a lot harder at looking at that stuff than I am now. A lot of people just need a helping hand. I got to have a feeling for these people. I don't want to say I've gone completely soft, but I've mellowed."

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