The McAllen Monitor reports that the South Texas Specialized Crimes and Narcotics Task Force has released a video of a traffic stop involving state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, hoping to intimidate him into backing off his efforts to rein in rogue task forces and to ban consent searches at traffic stops. (You can view the video here.) The Attorney General has ruled such video is not a public record, so the task force used its discretion to give it out anyway, even though normally law enforcement suppresses those tapes.
That's unbelievably brazen -- a pure case of retaliation against a state senator for filing legislation.
Indeed, this sort of retaliatory tactic against public officials is a pattern with this bunch. The South Texas task force earned special disapprobation two years ago when a couple of its agents allegedly attempted to bribe a member of the asset forfeiture division of the Kleberg County District Attorney's office. When they were found out, the officers claimed it was a joke, despite ongoing bad blood between the task force and the DA. Said the DA to the Corpus Christi Caller Times in 2003, "If all of this is true, two task force members were committing bribery. Even if this is a prank, it indicates a severe lapse in judgment ... I think the whole task force is infected."
The South Texas task force is one of several that refused to go under the authority of the Texas Department of Public Safety at the order of the Governor after a series of scandals statewide. Instead, the task force chose to do without federal funding, living off asset forfeiture income from traffic interdiction like pirates living off the spoils from plundered ships. Task forces with large asset forfeiture income streams didn't want to follow DPS rules, in particular one requiring that they devote equal time performing interdiction on northbound and southbound traffic. Generally, drugs run north and money runs south, so task forces hoping to maximize income routinely monitor only the southbound lanes. That's what Hinojosa thinks was happening when he was pulled over. Reported the Monitor:
Hinojosa said he was profiled because he is Hispanic and was driving a late-model SUV. The stop was illegal, and it brings up another problem with the task force: it is looking for cash, not drugs, he said.Hinojosa's SB 1125 would abolish multijurisdictional drug task forces that refuse to accept DPS oversight, but the committee substitute allows them to reconsider and join DPS' system. That's a lot less radical than other legislation that would get rid of the whole task force system.
Because the task force is funded through the seizures it makes, its officers are less interested in finding drugs and more interested in finding money, Hinojosa said.
If they wanted drugs, they would search cars heading north on 281, not south, Hinojosa said.
"They’re only after the money from seizures so they can pay their salaries," Hinojosa said.
It merits note that the senator's record reining in drug task force misbehavior goes back years, long before this traffic stop for which he's being accused of retaliating. In 2001, when he was a member of the House of Representatives, Hinojosa passed two bills reforming procedures based on problems arising in the Tulia and Hearne scandals. His legislation requiring corroborating evidence for undercover operatives in drug stings has inspired a similar bill in Congress. Chuy's no Juan-come-lately to this fight -- he's been trying to impose accountability on Texas' drug task force system for a long time -- he's not on some vendetta against this particular task force, though it's a particularly egregious one.
It's ironic to hear this particular drug task force complaining about Hinojosa's proposed requirement for written consent at traffic searches. They were one of the troublesome actors in a study I authored for ACLU of Texas last year analyzing racial profiling data from drug task force highway interdiction units. Entitled Flawed Enforcement (pdf), the study analyzed search data in particular, finding that drug task force interdiction practices amount to fishing expeditions looking for asset forfeiture income.
The South Texas Specialized Crimes and Narcotics Task Force has a designated highway interdiction unit devoted to stopping drivers along state highways 77 and 281. The agency reported that vehicle searches are performed at an astonishing one-third of traffic stops, meaning one of three drivers stopped for a supposed traffic violation.
Even more insensibly, the agency reported that 93% of these were "consent searches," where an officer was using his or her discretion to ask for a search, even though there was no probable cause. By contrast, for example, 12% of searches by the San Antonio PD were consent searches, 14% by the Austin PD. That's a sign the task force is fishing for assets, not just enforcing the traffic laws. They're engaging in exactly the type of behavior Sen. Hinojosa wants to restrict.
He may be right, too, that the task force is engaged in racial profiling. White people stopped by the South Texas task force were searched 15% of the time, according to the racial profiling data the agency reported. By contrast, Latinos were searched 30.2% of the time they were stopped. (Too few blacks were stopped to include in the analysis.)
Apparently the problems at this agency go back a long time. This historical Grits post from last fall, based on information garnered from an ACLU open records request, disclosed how, ten years ago, the same task force was led by a drug-addicted commander and staffed by gypsy cop agents who destroyed evidence, lied in court proceedings and covered up one another's criminal behavior.
I know Sen. Hinojosa won't back down, so I hope his constituents back him up. I also know his encounter with this drug task force isn't the reason he filed these bills, but I'll bet the assault on his character will make the new laws sweeter to celebrate when they pass.
UPDATE: Greg Moses has more.