Backlash Emerges as Texas Drug Task Forces Run Amok 2/8/02

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Texas anti-drug task forces, the federally-seeded multi-jurisdiction drug law enforcement machines that perpetuate themselves at least partly with assets seized from their victims, have happily rampaged across the Lone Star State for a more than a decade, but their continuing excesses and abuses are arousing increasingly hostile responses from victims and civil rights advocates. The Panhandle Area Drug Task Force gained national infamy when it participated in the widely-criticized drug raids in Tulia in 1999, but it is not the only drug task force to come under fire. In an attempt to quiet the rising clamor, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced last month that he was moving to bring all drug task forces in the state under the watchful eye of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).

That won't be enough for Spicewood resident Sandra Smith, 56, who was held at gunpoint by Capital Area Narcotics Task Force officers last May when they raided her home after airborne surveillance mistakenly identified ragweed at the back of her rural lot as marijuana. Operating without a search warrant, the SWAT-style raiders helicoptered in and ransacked her property, but found no drugs. And they kicked her old dog, too, she claimed. Now, she and other residents of the home outside Austin are suing Travis County, the task force, and the individual officers involved. Each plaintiff is seeking $35,000 in damages from each respondent for violating their civil rights.

"This is the most terrifying thing that even happened to me in my life," Smith told the Austin American-Statesman. "I've never been in trouble with the law. I don't even smoke cigarettes."

"That raid was something worthy of the old secret police in the Soviet Union," said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Liberties Project, which is handling the lawsuit. "What they did was pathetic, but also dangerous. These cops thought these people had some pot, so instead of getting a warrant, which would be standard police practice, they just jump in with this unjustifiable array of force," he told DRCNet. "And when they figure out they're wrong, they still hold the people at gunpoint while they ransack the house looking for some sign of wrongdoing, and when they can't find anything, they leave without a word of apology."

The lawsuit charges the task force with violating Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure and with using excessive force, and demands that Smith's name be removed from a state drug suspect database. "They totally botch this raid, they violate her Fourth Amendment rights, and then they put her in the computer as a narcotics offender," said Harrington. "It isn't right. If she gets stopped for a traffic violation, they'll search her now. It's a law enforcement zoo." The problem of out-of-control drug enforcement in general and the task forces in particular are is as big as the state of Texas, as this admittedly partial list of task force blunders, botches, and crimes from recent years makes clear:

  • May 1999: Members of the Hays County Narcotics Task Force shot and killed 25-year-old Alexander Windle in a confrontation during a predawn raid. Windle had twice sold half-ounces of marijuana to task force informant. That informant, Roy Parrish, a 48-year-old multiple felon, caused the task force to drop numerous cases after it was revealed that he was plying area teenagers with drugs and alcohol.
  • July 1999: Based on reports from a shady undercover officer paid for by the Panhandle Area Narcotics Task Force, authorities in Tulia arrested 41 persons, 35 of them black, decimating the town's black community and blasting the town into the national spotlight.
  • November 2000: The South Central Narcotics Task Force arrested 28 people in Hearne, all of them black, for small-time drug sales. Within a few months, local authorities had dropped charges against 17 people after finding that their informant had fabricated evidence. Eleven people had already pleaded guilty.
  • December 2000: Former Maverick County Narcotics Task Force member Wilbur Honeycutt was sentenced to 15 years in prison for shooting a Mexican immigrant in the back. Honeycutt shot and paralyzed Monje Ortiz as Ortiz fled back toward Mexico after being caught attempting to cross into the United States.
  • February 2001: The Capital Area Narcotics Task Force lost Deputy Keith Ruiz, shot and killed during a plain-clothes drug raid. The target of the raid said he thought the police were burglars.
  • April 2001: San Antonio prosecutors dropped at least 33 drug cases after four San Antonio police officers were arrested in an FBI sting. The officers had believed they were providing protection for cocaine traffickers. Another three cases were dropped after a suburban Balcones Heights police officer, John Beauford, was indicted in a similar but unrelated FBI sting. Beauford was former supervisor of the Alamo Area Narcotics Task Force.
  • June 2001: The director of the Texas Narcotics Control Program, which allocates federal funds to the various task forces, was demoted after an audit finds $44,000 in questionable expenses. Robert J. Bodisch Sr. plied local law enforcement officials with golf outings, plaques and alcohol at various conferences.
  • September 2001: The 81st Judicial District Narcotics Task Force in Wilson County lost officer Albert J. Villareal of Poteet after he was indicted and jailed for filing false reports, fabricating evidence and abusing his position. The indictment alleged that Villareal trumped up drug charges against 15 people.
  • October 2001: The Texas Observer published a blistering expose of the Chambers County Narcotics Task force between Houston and Beaumont, which it reported having a "well-earned reputation for greed, sloth, inefficiency and corruption." The Observer's three-month investigation of the task force revealed "that task forces like the CCNTF amass impressive stats by focusing the majority of their efforts on street-level dealers, all but ignoring dealers further up the food chain." The Observer's description of task force internal case logs described its targets as "row after row and page after page of black defendants, most of them street-level crack dealers."
  • November 2001: The Denton/Collins County Task Force had at least six members facing criminal or disciplinary investigations endangering potential prosecutions. Denton County prosecutors cited problems with the task force in announcing they were dropping cocaine possession charges against former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin.
  • December 2001: The Capital Area Narcotics Task Force shot and killed 19-year-old Antonio Martinez as he lay sleeping on the couch of a home being raided. The unarmed Martinez was not the raid's target (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/217.html#austintragedy).
  • January 2002: Dallas County prosecutors were working to dismiss 59 large-scale drug cases after it turned out that the drugs involved were not drugs at all but pulverized sheetrock. All of the cases involved two Dallas police detectives and a confidential informant who was paid $200,000 for his efforts. Thirty-nine people, almost all Mexican immigrants, were arrested. Three remain in custody, while others were deported. Many accepted plea bargains. The FBI is now investigating. The sheetrock scandal is only the latest in a tawdry series of Dallas narcotics police corruption scandals that have enveloped the department for the last decade, beginning with two officers nicknamed "Bruiser" and "Cruiser," who made an extracurricular living shaking down drug dealers in the early 1990s.
"You don't need these kinds of units," said Harrington. "They need to abolish these task forces all together. They are structured so you can't avoid this sort of abuse. What in heaven's name was the point in creating all these regional task forces?"

The short answer is money. Under a Reagan-era Department of Justice program, the federal government provides hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the states to disburse in grants to regional anti-drug task forces. In Texas alone, some 700 law enforcement officers work for various task forces, at a cost of $31 million in federal funds this fiscal year. To qualify for federal funds, the task forces must come up with a 25% match for whatever federal funds they receive, and herein lies a problem. Because local funding can be iffy, the task forces have become self-sustaining, primarily by seizing cash and goods from the people they arrest. Under Texas law, arresting agencies are allowed to keep all assets seized.

But the funding imperative also distorts task force priorities in other ways. Making repeated arrests of small-time crack dealers may not do anything to reduce substance abuse, but it is a fine way of creating impressive statistics used to garner a bigger share of task force grants.

"It's all about the numbers," Chambers County defense attorney Ed Lieck told the Observer. "More numbers mean more money. I've been doing this for ten years, and law enforcement is about the money. Anybody who tells you different is lying to you," he said.

"I think that's the key to this whole problem," said Will Harrell, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. "It's numbers by any means, and nobody is doing an assessment of the methods used," he told the Observer. "Statistics from small-time crack busts, income from highway stops, it's a winning formula."

But it's not a formula that pleases former Travis County Sheriff and current state Rep. Terry Keel (R-Austin). "There are legitimate questions about integrity and tactics when it comes to these task forces, and there have been for many years," Keel told the Austin American-Statesman. "I don't always agree with the ACLU, but they have good reason to be concerned about this. It is a flawed approach, and it has had poor results, mediocre statistics at best, and it has been rife with corruption."

While Gov. Perry has belatedly attempted to bring his cowboy cops under the control of the Texas Narcotics Control Board, critics have charged it isn't enough. "I'm not prepared to say it's going to work," said Harrell. "Only time will tell if it is a facade or if it's genuine oversight."

That's not enough for Harrington. "These things need to be abolished," he told DRCNet. "They are ridiculous and dangerous. They botch things up, they're unprofessional, and they're violating peoples' rights with serious consequences."

And there is something people can do, he said. "There is growing grassroots pressure to de-fund and de-legitimize these task forces. These things are funded at the county level, so if people agitate at the county level that can be very effective. If the counties don't ask for the federal money, that's the end of it."

-- END --
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Issue #223, 2/8/02 Editorial: Hate Mongering | DEA Backs Off a Bit on Hemp Foods, Extends "Grace Period" Before Ban for 40 Days | The Bush 2003 Drug Budget: More of the Same, More for Colombia, More for the DEA | DRCNet Interview: Noam Chomsky | Bush Administration Seeks to Widen Colombian Intervention as Human Rights Groups Denounce Abuses | Federal Judge Throws Out Glow Stick, Pacifier Ban in New Orleans Rave Case | Cincinnati Again Asks Federal Courts to Revive Drug Exclusion Zone | Backlash Emerges as Texas Drug Task Forces Run Amok | Seismic Shift in Sentencing Policies Underway: Declining Crime Rates, Budget Woes Cited | Media Scan: Alan Bock, Arianna Huffington, Foreign Policy in Focus, ABC News on Hemp Foods | Alerts: HEA Drug Provision, Bolivia, DEA Hemp Ban, SuperBowl Ad, Ecstasy Legislation, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana | The Reformer's Calendar
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