Saturday, January 15, 2005

Federal judge: Everyone liable for Tulia-style screwups

Buried amidst the avalanche of press surrounding the Tom Coleman perjury trial, a federal magistrate judge in Waco found in a ruling made public this week that all participating counties in Byrne-grant funded drug task forces are liable for the misconduct of undercover agents. From the Waco Herald-Tribune:

Both counties comprising the former narcotics task force being sued for racial targeting and constitutional violations in Hearne will have to fight the case in federal court.

In a decision made public this week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey C. Manske ruled Limestone County's involvement in the two-county South Central Texas Regional Narcotics Task Force merits their inclusion in the civil suit.

Limestone County attorney Michael Dixon had argued because the operation was carried out solely in Robertson County with no Limestone County personnel, Limestone County shouldn't be liable for what happened.

That's an absolutely HUGE finding, much bigger, in the scheme of things, than Tom Coleman's perjury conviction. That means that, in cases like Tulia and Hearne, all counties in a drug task force are liable, even if they weren't remotely involved. In the Tulia case, 26 total counties were signed onto the task force, but only two agencies -- the Swisher County Sheriff who hired Tom Coleman and the Amarillo PD who supervised him -- had any direct role in the flawed drug sting. In Hearne, all the arrests and the manpower for the task force came from Roberston County, but the judge has now ruled that Limestone County may be sued for any misbehavior.

The ruling creates tremendous liability risks for counties participating in drug task forces all over the state. In Northeast Texas, for example, the Dogwood Trails drug task force busted a supposed 72 person crack ring, every last one of them black, in the tiny 17,000 person town of Palestine, in Anderson County. Neighboring Cherokee County is part of the task force, but not one arrest was made in their county from the two-year long investigation. However, if any litigation arises from the obvious racial profiling going on (see the comments here), after this ruling, Cherokee County will be fully liable. Same goes for Anderson County -- it's liable for the botched raid by the Dogwood Trails task force on the wrong home in Jacksonville in 2003.

My boss at ACLU of Texas, Will Harrell, summed up the result, and the Waco paper gave more background on ACLU's Hearne litigation, and how it relates to current events:

"What this ruling means is that counties and cities in these task forces are liable for what the yahoo cowboy law enforcement operations do 100 miles away," said Will Harrell, executive director of the ACLU of Texas.

The ACLU is leading the Hearne lawsuit filed by more than a dozen of the 28 people targeted during a drug sweep in November 2000. Their suit was profiled nationally in a PBS "Frontline" special last summer and the case has been compared to the Tulia scandal in the Texas Panhandle.

It is currently slated for trial in Waco this May.

All but one of the defendants were black and each case was based on the testimony of one informant, Derrick Megress, who has since retracted his testimony in numerous cases and said he was pressured by John Paschall, the Robertson County district attorney and former task force director.

The indictments eventually fell apart at the first trial four months later and all the defendants who hadn't settled in plea bargains were released.

Paschall, Robertson County officials, and Limestone County officials deny wrongdoing.

Well, yes, so did Tom Coleman and Sheriff Larry Stewart, and yet, here we are. In Hearne, as in Tulia and in Palestine, the drug task force targeted the black community almost exclusively. If Limestone County didn't want to be liable for that, they never should have signed on to the agreement.

Other Texas counties already are deciding the liability posed by these rogue agencies outweighs any residual benefits.Today among Texas cities, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Lubbock, Amarillo, Denton and Laredo no longer participate in drug task forces. Texans from those jurisdictions deserve to benefit from federal Byrne grant money, too. Instead, 86% of Texas' Byrne grant funds still fund drug task forces, but in an increasingly smaller number of counties.

Lubbock's disbanding of the South Plains task force last year drew lots of media attention. Here's the explanation given for their actions by the Lubbock paper:

Topping the list of Lubbock's concerns was the tremendous level of liability risk for any and all of the cities involved.

As the department responsible for the $655,000 grant that funded the task force, the Lubbock force also was liable for the actions of participating officers in the 18 counties that comprise the task force, according to a police department statement.


One need only recall Amarillo's recent experience with the Tulia drug defendant cases to recognize the tremendous financial liability potential that Lubbock had to take into consideration in making its decision to withdraw. The resulting civil suit and legal settlement from the now-discredited Tulia drug sting cost Amarillo about $5 million.


In that respect, the decision to withdraw from the regional task force was a difficult one, but it also was the right one.

Indeed, getting rid of Byrne-funded regional narcotics task forces would be the right decision for the whole state, the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee recommended last month. Civil rights groups have long held the state should use Byrne money for other priorities, and ditch the task forces for good.

That would be real justice, finally, from the Tulia case.

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