Bad Cops II: South Texas Drug Task Force Fights Dirty 4/29/05

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Texas state senator Juan Hinojosa is no stranger to drug policy reform, having authored bills that restricted the use of undercover police agents in the wake of the Tulia scandal. This year, he has sponsored two bills that have aroused the ire of at least one Texas drug task force, and those cops are fighting back. Hinojosa is sponsoring one bill that would .

As reported in great detail on Scott Henson's excellent Texas criminal justice blog, the South Texas Specialized Crime and Narcotics Task Force, one of three in the state that have refused state oversight, has fought back by releasing video of a traffic stop where Hinojosa was pulled over on US Highway 281 as he headed south. Task force commander Jaime Garza told the McAllen Monitor that Hinojosa was targeting his group. "I believe that these two bills are geared at us," Garza said. "Hinojosa was trying to say we're all rogues, and I don't go for that. Hell, no," he said.

But if Garza hoped the traffic stop video would aid his cause, he appears to be mistaken. First, the video demonstrates all too clearly why people like Hinojosa feel the task forces need to be reined in. Hinojosa was stopped because the factory tint on his SUV windows was "too dark" and because he "swerved" when he waved at the officer. Such "pretextual" stops are common operating procedure for highway drug law enforcers, who will then seek permission to search the vehicle.

And they are especially common in the task force's turf. According to an ACLU study of highway interdiction in Texas, the South Texas task force reported vehicle searches in fully one-third of traffic stops, with a whopping 93% of them being "consent searches." In other words, in only 7% of the vehicle searches conducted by the task force did its officers have any reason to conduct a search. By way of comparison, only 12% of San Antonio police searches were consent searches and only 14% of Austin police searches. "That's a sign the task force is fishing for assets, not just enforcing the law," said Henson.

"These drug task forces are out there just interdicting and stopping people illegally without probable cause asking to search their vehicles and pretty much harassing citizens of the state of Texas," Hinojosa told fellow legislators at an April 12 hearing. "And all they are trying to do is see if they can find money that they can seize to fund their operations. To me what they do is illegal, improper, and not good public policy," he said.

"Let me tell you I've been stopped several times by drug task forces that don't come under jurisdiction of the DPS," said Hinojosa. "They don't need probable cause to stop you. They just stop you. They will profile you which is illegal to stop you, ask to search your vehicle without probable cause which is also illegal, and I refuse. But a lot of citizens don't know that and what they do is go through your car, snoop around, see what they can find and let you go if they don't find any money. Those drug task forces have no business operating in our state."

And now, through its attempt to embarrass and retaliate against Hinojosa for going after task force abuses, the South Texas Specialized Crime and Narcotics Task Force is squarely in the limelight and helping to make the case for its own abolition. On Monday, Hinojosa's bills were placed on the Senate intent calendar -- typically a signal that they will pass.

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Issue #384 -- 4/29/05

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Editorial: Pointlessness | Feature: In Civil Obedience Campaign, Hungarian Drug Users Turn Themselves In | Feature: Marijuana Research Grow Effort Heads for DEA Hearing | Feature: The North American Syringe Exchange Convention | DRCNet Interview: Ten Years of Organizing Hard Drug Users -- Ann Livingston of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users | Announcement: DRCNet/Perry Fund Event to Feature US Rep. Jim McDermott, June 1 in Seattle | Weekly: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Bad Cops II: South Texas Drug Task Force Fights Dirty | Prisons: US Inmate Population Continues to Swell, Now at 2.1 Million | Drug Czar: Walters Under Attack By Prohibitionists | Marijuana March: Global March May 7 in More Than 180 Cities | Holland: Ministers Squabble Over Cannabis -- One Calls For Legalization, Has Public Opinion on His Side | Europe: British Heroin Maintenance Program to Expand | India: Crackdown on Opium Growers Spurs Confusion, Protests in Karnataka | Weekly: This Week in History | Events: MPP Galas Next Week and the Following | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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