Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Open Records Next Step On Dogwood Trails Task Force

Some days it's hard to have faith in public servants. The Anderson County District Attorney promised to send requested information about the 72 people arrested in a rural East Texas county, but it never came. So I'm filing a request under the Texas Public Information Act to demand the material.

I was told by the Anderson County District Clerk that these documents were all still “sealed,” and that I must get them from the DA’s office. DA Doug Lowe referred me to an employee who he said would help us. That DA’s employee verbally promised to copy the indictments and mail them to an address I provided. (He pled a lack of labor resources to copy them immediately.) The DA’s office did not send that material as promised.

The same employee said Dogwood Trails Task Force Commander Curtis Bitz had all the other information I requested, and only he could release it, but Bitz refused to supply that information when contacted by a reporter from The Texas Observer.

Since activists elsewhere may find the open records tactic useful in investigating drug war abuses, I thought I'd let folks know for what I'm asking.

From the District Attorney/District Clerk, I'm requesting copies of all the indictments, search warrant probable cause affidavits, arrest warrant probable cause affidavits, and court documents related to asset forfeiture claims by the county. These are the basic documents any investigative reporter would start with to pursue the story. In particular, search warrant affidavits are often the best source of information about such cases before they go to trial, because to get a judge to issue a warrant prosecutors must reveal a certain amount of detail about the investigation. In Texas, arrest warrantscannot be sealed after execution -- we don't have sneak and peek searches here -- so it was improper for the DA and District Clerk to withhold them from me (link is to a bill passed in 2003) .

From the Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force, I'm requesting the "case log books," where the task force chronologically records details of each bust. These case log books were used by former Texas Observer editor Nate Blakeslee to document racial profiling by the Chambers County Narcotics Task Force north of Houston. Since that time, several members of the task force have been indicted. The Texas Attorney General has ruled these case log books are public records, and they provide the best way to document patterns of racial targeting and irregularities in task force drug investigations.

Obviously, I'll let readers know what we find.

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