Thursday, April 21, 2005

Senator faces police retaliation over bills

Man, those South Texas cops play the politics game pretty rough.

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.

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.
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.

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.


Adina said...

This is a pretty sad example of "he said/she said" journalism.

The TV reports the traffic stop video, quotes the police, and quotes the Senator.

They repeat allegations, but don't check the facts. They don't have any of the factual background on the task forces problems or the consent search issue or the racial profiling issue.

It's probably not the fault of the individual reporters who have only a short time to file the story.

This is greed and laziness on the part of TV news as a business. They get to show the drama, and don't feel the need to get the background.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Wonk: The task force bill grows out of years of efforts to legislate accountability, going back to the Tulia and Hearne cases. The consent search bill was brought to Hinojosa by civil rights groups who proposed the idea at a press conference in March before the bill ever had a sponsor. It wasn't like he came up with the idea. Anyone can get pulled over, but I think it's a false inference to say he filed the bill BECAUSE of the stop.

Anonymous said...

Everybody that has a comment about bad police work has in fact probably never worked it a day in there life. The fact that an officer "Beat u" and no charges were filed is stupid. Either u resisted arrest or something of that nature. I have never heard of such a story before that makes me so sick to my stomach. The police officers that u never want until u need them. So next time u are screaming for help; those officers that u put down for doing there job will be the ones responding to U. Most people will run away from violent things or gunshots but police officers run towards it. Hereos, thats all u can really say about a Police Officer. Maybe u should sit back and think before u talk next time. The people who protect u at night or come running when u yell for help are the ones ur putting down. Maybe one day u should go on a ride along with a cop and see what we really do and u might pull ur head out ur underside and realize that our job isnt the easiest. We deal with people at there worst times, they dont invite us over for coffee. JUST A THOUGHT.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who believes that there are not corrupt cops out there is either naive or insane. Everyday SAPD police officers violate the rights of citizens and use excessive force when it is not necessary. Although criminal charges have not been filed in my case yet, they will be filed soon. I was not arrested by the officer that beat me (he was off-duty in a sweatsuit with no ID and never identified himself as an officer). I have no doubt what happened to me. I was a volunteer on a local ambulance crew and DID ride along with police when I was a news reporter. There are bad police, just like there are bad everything. Just pick up a newspaper or watch the news - SAPD officers are caught in illegal acts, lies, corruption, and violating rights on a regular basis. Until it happens to YOU, or someone you love, you can live in never never land where all police are upstanding, honest, and follow the law. By the way, there are almost 15 jobs more dangerous than being a police officer - and having a dangerous job does not mean you can break the law.