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
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:
"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?"
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
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
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.
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,"
"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 --
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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