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June 2021


How to Become a Bounty Hunter


UK Study Shows High Potency Pot Users Have Triple the Rate of Psychosis

By Ross Parker

A British study found recently that the risk of first time psychosis among users of high THC cannabis was three times greater than for non-users, regardless of the age of the user or the frequency of use. Frequent users were found to have more than five times the risk.

The study was conducted by a group of physicians and scientists at Kings College London, and the results were published in this week’s Lancet, one of the most highly regarded medical journals in the world. The study was funded by the UK National Institute of Health Research.

No psychosis risk increase was found comparing low potency users with non-users. However, recent studies show that the legalization trend has resulted in a steady increase in the THC content of marijuana available for use and sale in the US.

The study results add to the increasing body of medical research pointing out the increasing dangers of marijuana use, particularly among children and young adults. Ironically these studies are bucking the trend toward legalization of medical and recreational use in roughly half the states. This occurs at the same time that use, distribution, and cultivation continue to be federal crimes. This anomaly is nowhere more blatant than in the District of Columbia which legalized use and cultivation this week.

Nor does there appear to be any resolution in the offing of this conflict. The federal executive and Congressional branches seem to offer no leadership on the dilemma.

Meanwhile many state government leaders considering the issue seem to be focused on short term financial projections than on the health issues. And whatever medical research is made part of the debate is often from an earlier time when THC levels were a small fraction of today’s high potency pot being cultivated by enterprising agronomists.

The psychosis study seems symbolic of this entire issue from a macro-examination perspective as well.

Legendary Tony Bertoni, Retired U.S. Marshal and Former Detroit Cop, Dies at 95

Tony Bertoni

By Ross Parker

Anthony (Tony) Bertoni, a legendary law man both at the Detroit Police Department and as United States Marshal, died this past Sunday at the age of 95.

The Bertoni family grew up on the eastside of Detroit during the difficult years of post World War I and the Depression. Like many bright and capable young Irish Catholics of his day, Tony became a policeman in the Detroit Police Department. He was a courageous young officer who also had great people skills. He was well known for being able to solve problems for the people on his beat and precinct. His career was filled with awards and commendations for bravery and service.

His work ethic and recognized ability moved him steadily up through the ranks to the positions of Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, Inspector, Precinct Commander, and finally as Superintendant of the Department from 1973 to 1975.

In 1978 he was selected by President Carter to be the United States Marshal for the Eastern District of Michigan and was confirmed unanimously by the U. S. Senate. His selection was supported on a non-partisan basis as evidenced by his re-appointment for two terms by President Reagan. He served until 1990.

There were limited working ties between City and federal law enforcement systems at the time of his appointment, especially above the street level. One of his many accomplishments was to help bridge this gap and encourage cooperation, joint task forces, and constructive dialogue at the management and command level.

Tony quickly became the dean of the federal law enforcement leadership community. He helped U. S. Attorney Jim Robinson establish a Federal Law Enforcement Council, which met monthly to discuss common problems and resolve differences. He also was one of the first to help plan and participate in the Great Lakes Division of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force.

At these and other forums, when Tony talked everyone listened, His counsel was pragmatic, never argumentative of self-aggrandizing, but always with generous common sense and a full understanding of the concerns of everyone involved.

One of his many attributes was a genuine respect for all with whom he came in contact, from the newest Deputy Marshal to every member of the federal bench. You never heard an unkind or critical word about Marshal Bertoni.

In some ways Tony stood for old fashioned morality and values. Ethics and principles were paramount to him, and he had little sympathy for those who had betrayed the public trust or were habitual slackers. Loyalty, hard work, dedication to the positive goals of his various endeavors—these were the unquestioned values in his public service.

But he also recognized the need to overcome historical inequities in law enforcement and to promote progress and more modern methods. Having lived through the events of the summer of 1967 in Detroit as a District Inspector, he supported the advancement of qualified African American officers and deputies.

Likewise, although always the chivalrous gentleman, he was as gender neutral on the job as the most progressive law enforcement managers of his generation. Female AUSAs in particular seemed to like to work with him. Of course, he was the best looking guy in the U. S. Courthouse.

Tony wasn’t all about work. Most of all, he loved his wife, Frances, and his large family of 6 children, 12 grandchildren, and 22 great grandchildren. Like all patriarchs, he fretted over their struggles and was proud of their accomplishments. He was an excellent fisherman and a day on the lake with a family member was a joy to him.

He also was a man of quiet faith and a proud Italian American, who enjoyed talking about their many accomplishments in helping to build the City of Detroit.

For the rest of us, nothing was more enjoyable than eating a slow lunch at Roma’s Café with him. It was common for politicians, businesspeople, and beat cops to stop at his table, pay their respects and share a story or two about the old days. But the best storyteller was always Tony, who had an encyclopedic memory of the people and events in Detroit during the 20th Century. The stories were an oral history of the City, always fun and illuminating. One left these lunches reluctantly but with the feeling that you had chosen right to be part of the law enforcement fraternity with someone like Tony.

It is fitting that Tony’s long and well lived life extended into 2015, the bicentennial year of the first U. S. Marshal in the Michigan Territory, Thomas Roland, appointed in 1815 by President Madison.

Tony Bertoni would have been a lion in any generation. We are so fortunate that he chose ours. He was the epitome of the best in law enforcement, the best counselor and the best friend.


The FBI and Drugs in the Beginning

Cocaine/ file photo

By Greg Stejskal

Webster Bivens may have been a drug dealer, but his place in law enforcement history is not proportional to his status as an alleged dealer.

In the fall of 1965, Federal Bureau of Narcotics agents raided Bivens’ Brooklyn apartment. The FBN agents had neither an arrest warrant nor a search warrant. The agents arrested Bivens and handcuffed him in front of his family. They also allegedly threatened his family and in the terminology of Bivens’ later law suit searched his apartment from “stem to stern.” No drugs were found, and the charges filed after Bivens’ arrest were dismissed.

Bivens apparently had a litigious streak and brought a civil action against the “six unknown agents” of the FBN based on the violation of his rights under the 4th Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.”

Up until that time, a cause of action could not be brought against the US or its agents except as specifically authorized under certain statutes, and that was the ruling of the lower courts in Bivens’ action. But the Bivens case made it to the US Supreme Court, and in 1971, the Court decided that the US could be sued if the acts of its agents violated the Constitutional rights of a person. This not only created a cause of action, it fostered a perception that federal drug agents were running amok and were incapable of doing more than simple “buy-bust” investigations.

As the Bivens case worked its way through the courts, the whole approach to the federal war on drugs was being evaluated. The FBN agents who arrested Bivens were part of the Department of the Treasury. Presumably because drugs like alcohol were viewed as taxable commodities even though the principal drugs being targeted at that time were heroin, cocaine and marijuana, and were illegal per se.

Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Was Created

In order to unify the federal effort against illegal drugs, one agency was created in 1968, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), and it would now be an investigative agency in the Department of Justice. Then in 1973 the BNDD was renamed the Drug Enforcement Administration, and it remained in the DOJ. Although the perception of drug agents out of control was mostly inaccurate, DEA did have limited resources and was under pressure to produce results in terms of arrests and drug seizures. This made it difficult to dedicate their limited resources to long-term investigations targeting the upper echelons of drug trafficking organizations.

In the meantime the FBI was learning to utilize tools provided by the Omnibus Crime Act of 1968. This lengthy act was intended to provide means for federal law enforcement to investigate organized crime. For the FBI that meant La Costa Nostra, the Mafia. One particular part of the act (Title III) prescribed the process to legally intercept wire, oral or electronic communications – electronic surveillance or elsur for short. It included telephone wiretaps and surreptitiously placed microphones or bugs – generally referred to as a “wire.”

The probable cause required to get judicial approval for elsur was by design a difficult standard to meet. The affidavit documenting this “special “ probable cause often ran well in excess of 100 pages. Among other things, there had to be a showing that other investigative techniques wouldn’t work. For example if a drug dealer would only deal with someone he has known for years, it would be very difficult to get him to deal with an undercover agent.

Once the affidavit & accompanying order are written, they have to be submitted to the Attorney General of the US or a specifically designated Assistant AG for approval. If they are approved, they then have to be authorized by a US District Court Judge in the district where the elsur is to be conducted. The elsurs are limited to 30 days, but can be renewed based on an updated affidavit.

Read more »

Bicentennial of U.S. Attorney’s Office in Eastern Michigan

U.S. Attorney McQuade

By Ross Parker

If you run into Barb McQuade, the U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan some time in 2015, congratulate her for her Office’s milestone. This year marks the Bicentennial of the appointment of the first USA in Michigan Territory, Solomon Sibley in 1815. This makes the USAO the oldest law enforcement agency in the state.

Before there was a federal district court, a police force, any federal criminal investigative agency, or even the State of Michigan, there was a U.S. Attorney’s Office. Of course the log cabin where Sibley represented the federal government’s interests, among his other legal clients, is hardly recognizable as a USAO by today’s standards. He had a desk, a supply of quill pens, some ancient English law books, and a fireplace to get him through those rugged winters.

For his federal cases he was paid $5 per court day. Transportation was by horseback, mostly on Indian trails. There were few roads. Communication with Washington was slow and erratic. It took about two months to receive letters sent to the rustic village of Detroit. Since the Justice Department would not be created for 55 years, Sibley and his successors had limited support or guidance from the Capitol.

It is difficult to appreciate the uncertainties surrounding law and the judicial system in those early years when the infant nation was struggling to exist. Translating the rule of law and the concept of justice into the hard scrabble everyday lives of the settlers was an uncharted course. Even after determining a rough idea of what the law was supposed to be, the conflict between policy and practice was particularly challenging in Michigan because of its history of occupation by the Indian tribes, the French, the British, and then the American settlers whose heritage was from many different countries. Due process developed case by case involving people of widely diverse cultural backgrounds, people who had very different ideas about what the law was and how it should be applied in particular situations on the frontier.

Civil cases included collecting debts owed to the federal government, sorting out the chaotic French land grants and estates and interpreting Army supply contracts. The first case involved a forfeiture action against a shipment of lumber which had been smuggled into the Detroit port to avoid payment of duty.

Criminal cases involved charges of counterfeiting, receiving stolen goods and larceny, and starting a riot. The early USAs were practical men. When there were not enough grand jurors to make a quorum, they simply sent the U.S, Marshal out to round up some bystanders.

Sibley and the other USAs started out with the elementary principle that this would be a government of laws and not men. The rights and liabilities of the citizenry were given life incrementally by the resolution of disputes about the application of law, not the exercise of discretion by the powerful. However imperfect at times, the process slowly evolved into the due process system we enjoy today.

No law enforcement institution is perfect. There have been cases lost and prosecutions unsuccessful. But the USAO EDMI has been remarkably free of impropriety. Of course there was that attempt by USA Daniel LeRoy in 1828 to resign in exchange for half of a successor’s $250 annual salary. But the USAO soldiered on through the challenges of the Civil War and its aftermath of crime, the explosive expansion of the federal government near the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th Centuries, the failed social experiment of Prohibition with its court congestion, crime and corruption.

Like the rest of America it was a white male institution with no women or African American attorneys until the late 1940s. Appointments of Assistants was a political process into the 1960s with each new administration brooming out the AUSAs to make room for new appointees, who then started from scratch to build an experience level to cope with a burgeoning caseload.

But somehow the legacies and progress continued despite these counter-productive practices. As Justice Cardozo noted a century ago, justice is a concept that is never finished but which reproduces itself generation after generation in ever changing forms.

So happy birthday to my former colleagues and staff in the USAO. Your work is important to that process of rebirth and toward a system which protects every person’s right to a fair day in court.

If your computer is freezing up and a federal judge has been tough on you on a particular day, remember it could be worse. You could be putting your briefs in a saddlebag and trudging through the snow on an Indian trail to get to court instead of scampering across Fort Street.


Supreme Court Was Pretty Good to Law Enforcement This Year

By Ross Parker

With a couple of notable exceptions the Supreme Court continued to be good to law enforcement in general this past year of 2014, particularly to federal agencies. The functioning so-called “conservative” majority of Chief Justice Roberts along with Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Kennedy was not invariably responsible for this result. In fact, predicting in advance the votes of particular Justices on particular issues was a dicey exercise.

Although the Supreme Court decides cases by September to June terms, just like most school kids in America, this column will examine notable 2014 Criminal Cases (and those which might be of interest to federal agents). Most were decided in the 2013-2014 term with a few already ruled upon in the 2014-2015 term.

Vehicle Stop Cases

Plumhoff v. Rickard (5/27) – Upholds the use of deadly force (shooting the driver) to end a dangerous car chase by police of a wanted driver of a vehicle that was endangering other drivers and pedestrians.

Navarette v. California (4/27) – Officer had reasonable suspicion that justified a vehicle stop based on an anonymous 911 call that the vehicle had run the caller off the road. Similar cases invalidating stops were distinguished because in this case the informant had actually seen criminal activity.

Hein v. North Carolina (12/15) – An officer’s mistake of law (that a car must have two working brake lights under NC law) if reasonable under the circumstances can validate reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle.

Search and Seizure Cases

Fernandez v. California (2/25) – Consent to search given by an abused co-inhabitant to police after they had arrested and removed from the house an objecting inhabitant was valid. Prior cases invalidating cases were distinguished since the objecting occupant in those cases was still physically present when the officers acted on the consent of the other occupant.

Riley v. California (6/25) — Officers cannot search digital information from a cell phone seized as incident to an arrest absent a valid search warrant. Such a warrantless search could still be valid in exigent circumstances. See an earlier column for a detailed analysis.

Firearm Cases

Rosemund v.US  (3/5) – Conviction for aiding and abetting a crime of carrying a gun requires proof that the defendant knew in advance that the carrier would be armed and that the defendant had a realistic opportunity to abandon the crime.

Abarmski v. US (6/16) – A straw buyer (who happened to be a policemen buying for his uncle and with his uncle’s money) who purchases a firearm on behalf of another person while filling out the ATF form that the purchase was for himself violates the sec. 922(a)(6) false statement prohibition, even if the other person could have legally purchased the firearm. This was a 5-4 decision in which the normally pro law enforcement Justices voted in the dissent.

US v. Castleman (3/26) – Dismissal of Armed Career Criminal Act charges was reversed by a holding that a prior misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence barred firearm possession under sec. 922(g)(9) even though no physical force had been used in the assault.

Capital Punishment Cases

Hall v. Florida (5/27) – Florida statute which established a bright line rule for defining intellectual disability for the purpose of qualifying for the death penalty at IQ 70 was invalidated as too rigid and permitted an unacceptable risk of executing a disabled defendant. See an earlier column for more detailed analysis.

Note – The nation’s struggle to establish due process in this category continued, sometimes with bizarre results. The majority of states have eliminated the death penalty either de facto or by legislation and in only a handful of southern states does it remain in use. Henry Lee McCollum was exonerated by DNA after he had spent over 30 years on death row in North Carolina in a case that Justice Scalia is said to have ridiculed his appeal a decade earlier. In Arizona a motion to stop an execution was filed and argued by conference call in the middle of an execution by lethal injection when death did not result for over two hours. Alabama continued to be the only state to permit judges to disregard a jury’s verdict of life imprisonment and to impose a death sentence. This has occurred 95 times in the last 30 years and 43 defendants are on death row under the same circumstances.

Controlled Substances Case

Burage v. US (1/27) – Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt a “but-for” causation in order to convict a defendant of distribution where death results. Contributing to or acting as a substantial cause in the death is insufficient.

Cases Involving Agents

Wood v. Moss (5/27) – Secret Service Agents were entitled to qualified immunity in a Bivens civil action where they moved a protest group two blocks away and out of sight of the President when he unexpectedly decided to deviate from a planned motorcade route in Oregon in order to eat lunch. The agents acted in good faith with valid security concerns. The fact that the protesters could not continue their expressions like the supporters when the President went back to the planned route did not justify the civil suit.

US v. Clark (6/9) – A bare allegation that IRS agents had acted with an improper purpose, without adequate facts, was insufficient to compel them to be subject to examination in a civil action by taxpayers who had been summoned to testify and produce documents.

In these dozen cases, dedcisions favorable to law enforcement were an 8 to 4 majority, a good result in most fields of endeavor.



Michigan Supreme Court Justice Michael F. Cavanagh’s Remarkable Judicial Career Celebrated

By Ross Parker

Legal luminaries this week celebrated the distinguished judicial career of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Michael F. Cavanagh, the longest serving appellate judge in state history. Several hundred people attended the court’s extraordinary session in Lansing on December 3rd to express their appreciation for his exceptional service to the legal profession and the people of the state of Michigan.

Justice Cavanagh became a judge in 1972 when he was elected as a district judge in Lansing. Two years later he was elected as Judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals, and in 1983 the electorate promoted him to the state Supreme Court where he has served for thirty-three years. He was Chief Justice from 1991-1995. When he retires on January 1st  next year, he will have sat on the bench for forty-two years and ruled on nearly 100,000 cases.

His life on the bench reminds us of the qualities that make up a great judge: integrity, a consistent sense of justice, common sense, contribution to the development of the rule of law, and civility.

Successfully navigating the treacherous waters of Michigan judicial politics is itself a notable accomplishment. There are many arguments against an elected judiciary. Voter neglect and indifference regularly produce judges who are mediocre or worse and who serve as prime examples of why a well constructed appointive system makes more sense. But Justice Cavanagh is the exception. Even when his views on subjects such as criminal law and procedure are out of the mainstream, he continues to be respected for the integrity of his opinions.

Fifty years ago Chief Justice Earl Warren and the U. S. Supreme Court revolutionized criminal procedure in America by a decade of cases which re-interpreted the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments to the Constitution. In the decades which followed many of these rulings have been tempered and contracted by conservative Court majorities who struck the balance differently between defendants’ rights and crime control.

As prosecutors we have applauded this shift. So why should we celebrate the views of judges like Justice Cavanagh, who often ruled contrary to the changing majority by supporting the continued expansion of defendants’ rights? Because his views, majority or dissent, made us all better prosecutors and law enforcement officers. They poked and prodded us in the nuances of investigation and prosecution to be more careful, more consistent, and more professional in our jobs. His sense of justice contributed significantly to the creation of a better criminal justice system.

His enrichment toward the development of the rule of law extends well beyond criminal law and procedure into a wide variety of other substantive areas. He also mentored 53 law clerks (including me), was a law school teacher of ethics and practice, a champion of victims’ rights, a national leader in the support of tribal courts, and a tireless worker for the improvement of the law and its practitioners.

For all of these attributes, it is Michael Cavanagh’s civility and peacemaking qualities which are most valued by those who worked with and for him.  Having seen judges who demean, terrify, and reduce lawyers to tears, and having been the object of thrown briefs, vocal tirades, I have more than once wished, at least for a moment, that I had stayed on the family farm. But being in Justice Cavanagh’s presence is always a refreshing, even enjoyable, experience.

Justice Cavanagh is that rare judge who can probe and question, and even ultimately rule against you, without making litigators want to retreat to a life of wills and debt collection in the safety of their offices. Surely this courtesy and respect will continue to be paid forward into countless acts of civility and professionalism by lawyers and judges for decades to come.

So thanks Justice Michael Cavanagh. Your life’s work made a difference for us all.

My Adventures Tracking Marion Barry

By Allan Lengel

In March of 1997, after being on strike at the Detroit News for 19 months, I headed off to D.C. to work for the Washington Post.

Sure, D.C. was home to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, but to me, just importantly, it was home to the legendary Mayor Marion Barry, the guy who had become fodder in the comedic stratosphere after being busted in 1990 in an FBI sting for smoking crack. Comic Chris Rock had a field day with Barry.

Barry’s death on Sunday at age 78 reminded me of the various encounters and dealings I had with him over the years while working at the Washington Post. Sometimes I had to track him down to get a quote for someone’s story or go to a community meeting where he was speaking ,or write about his encounters with the law.

He was a character, and a charismatic one at that, though it seemed in the latter years he had far less energy and zip and suffered from various ailments.

My first dealings with Barry came after I’d been at the paper a short time. Barry had publicly said he had turned over a new leaf and was loyal to his wife. He said he was no longer a stray cat on the prowl.

But some reporters at the paper were hearing differently, that he was still running around, and had at least a couple girlfriends on the side. They had names and addresses.

The Post editors wanted me to stake out the alleged girlfriends’ homes to show that Barry was lying. It smacked of the Gary Hart story the Miami Herald pursued in 1987 after Hart, who was running for president, denied rumors he was a womanizer. The Herald staked out a D.C. townhouse and found that Hart had spent the night with a woman named Donna Rice.

To be honest, I was a little uncomfortable snooping over something so tawdry. I didn’t like the Gary Hart story, and wasn’t too crazy about this one. But I was relatively new at one the nation’s top papers, and thought, well, if the Washington Post is doing this, it must be journalistically OK. Frankly, weeks and years later, I never felt good about it, and in hindsight, should have probably objected to taking part in the stakeout.

Nonetheless, one night I headed out to a stakeout on a street off of North Capitol, just blocks from Union Station. I sat about five houses down from the alleged girlfriend’s home. I remember sitting in the car, calling a friend back in Detroit and saying something like: “You’re not going to believe what they’ve got me doing.”

I thought, even if Barry showed up and went inside the house, short of him spending the night, what was I going to prove without peeking in the window to make sure he was getting naked? Other than that, for all I knew, he could have been going over there to watch a Seinfeld show marathon.

I sat there for a few hours. No Barry.

Another night I was sent out to an apartment parking lot in Southwest Washington. Again, no Barry. Eventually, before I took off, I asked a few people in the parking lot if they had ever seen Barry come around. They had not.

That was the end of that.

The next year, I was working on a story on the 40th anniversary of Ben’s Chili Bowl, a legendary hot dog joint on U Street in D.C. Barry was a regular, as were a lot of politicians, and he was particularly fond of the turkey burgers. While interviewing him, he gave me a very memorable line, which unfortunately was cut from the article because of space.

“Ben’s Chili Bowl is for everybody. It’s for people who go to Morehouse and people who got no house.”

I loved that line.

Eventually, a Control Board, similar to an emergency manager here in Michigan, stripped Barry of his powers. And in 1998, he decided not to run for mayor again. Four years later, the man was back. He announced he was running for city council.

“It’s great waking up in the morning clean and sober,” he said at the time.

But weeks later, I wrote a story, along with colleague Martin Weil, that U.S. Park Police had found traces of marijuana and cocaine in Barry’s car. Police had been trying to keep the story quiet.

What happened was police encountered Barry after responding to a call of a suspicious vehicle in a no-parking zone in an area of D.C. known as Buzzard Point. The officer saw Barry ingesting something and searched the car.

Authorities decided the amounts of illegal drugs were too small to support a prosecution.

Barry dropped out the council race shortly after.

But he wasn’t done.

In 2004, he ran and won a seat on city council. He remained as a council member until his death.

He was a complex man with an addictive personality. Life wasn’t so easy.

But it sure was interesting for him. And frankly, he made it interesting for a lot of other folks including journalists like me.

The Washington Post Editorial board on Sunday put it best:

Those people will mourn Marion Barry today, but they should not be alone. All in this city who knew him over his half-century here ought to mourn the great promise lost over the course of a life that conformed in many ways to the dictionary definition of ancient tragedy, and recall with admiration the man who helped knock down barriers that are almost unimaginable to those of a younger generation.




A Lesson in Civility from a “Developing” Nation

By Ross Parker

A recent trip with a dozen friends to Malawi in southeastern Africa provided much food for thought about the meaning of the character of a nation.

We were a group of well meaning but amateur voluntourists from a nation many consider to be the most advanced civilization in the world and we were traveling to one of the world’s poorest countries. Our objective was to help a rural village build a school but, along the way, we brought home some perplexing thoughts about our two countries’ value systems.

By any conventional and objective measurement, Malawi is a desperately poor people who have little educational opportunity, are largely undernourished, live a short life expectancy, and have limited health and medical care. They live on about a dollar a day. In the rural areas where 85% of the population lives, few have electricity or ready access to clean, running water.

What kind of reception could we from the Land of Conspicuous Consumption expect in such a place? Particularly in a time when Americans seem to be increasingly vilified around the world.

“We love you, Muzungus,” (Bantu for people of European descent) came the joyous cries of children in village after village as we traveled along the rutted dirt road to our project. Nor was this friendly reception limited to children. Adults out gutting a goat or tending a garden would pause, smile and wave to these strangers who had nothing to offer but a return wave.

After 17 days of this, we could only conclude that people in Malawi are just plain nice. Nice to each other, and nice to visitors whether they bear gifts or not.

This experience was disconcerting for Americans who are becoming increasingly accustomed to the erosion of civility in our daily lives. Let’s face it, in all walks of life in America people are less and less civil to each other.

On line discussions and transmissions are commonly vile. Most of us have tuned out politicians who would rather demonize than compromise. Bullying is a rite of passage in school. Rage on our roads, throats cut in business, rude customers, stressed out elementary children, drugs for recreation and anaesthetisation.

One day while we were shopping for supplies in the market of Mangochi, a medium sized city, I got separated from the Muzungu Bus. As I was wandering around, a young guy realized my plight, helped me on the back of his bicycle, and we toured around until we sighted my colleagues. I tried to give him a few kwacha but he just smiled, patted me on the back and pedaled off. Each of us could tell a dozen such stories of kindness.

That’s why they call their country the “Warm Heart of Africa.” I guess.

There is considerable debate about the benefits of these kinds of projects in “developing” Third World nations. No doubt there is a serious negative potential from those which are poorly conceived and without local control and participation.

But consider the phenomenon from a different perspective.

Countries like America which seem to be “developing” in the wrong direction need all the help we can get from civilizations that have learned that, even in the most difficult life circumstances, people can be polite, generous, and civil to each other.