Thursday, May 26, 2005

Federal "No More Tulias" Legislation Filed

Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee yesterday filed federal legislation to require states receiving federal law enforcement grants to have laws on the books requiring corroborating evidence for undercover testimony in drug stings.

The bill is based on a Texas law passed in 2001 requiring corroborating evidence for confidential informant testimony in drug stings. The original filed version would have also required corroboration for peace officers, as Jackson-Lee's bill does, but officers were excluded in the final version of Texas' law. Along with NAACP, LULAC, Tulia Friends of Justice, and a ton of folks on our ACLU legislative team, I personally worked hard to pass that piece of Texas
legislation in 2001, which was sponsored in the Senate by Leticia Van de Putte, and in the House by then Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa. It's pretty amazing to see the idea bubble up to the national level like that.

Some 50 groups have signed onto a
support letter for the bill. I haven't seen the filed version yet, but here's a description from an ACLU press release issued yesterday:
Legislation introduced today would provide oversight and accountability for the millions of federal dollars distributed to state and local law enforcement agencies to fight the drug war. The American Civil Liberties Union called the bill an important first step toward stopping widespread drug task force scandals such as the one in Tulia, Texas, where many of the town’s African American residents were arrested on bogus drug charges.

"Until now, these drug task forces around the country haven’t had to answer to anyone," said Jesselyn McCurdy, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. "As a result of this lack of state and federal oversight, they’ve been at the center of the some of the country’s most egregious law enforcement abuse scandals. This legislation would put checks and balances on their unfettered power, and make sure citizens aren’t rounded up based on uncorroborated testimony, or their race."

"No More Tulias: The Law Enforcement Evidentiary Standards Improvement Act of 2005," is being introduced by Rep. Shelia Jackson-Lee (D-TX) and cosponsored by John Conyers (D-MI), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Donald Payne (D-NJ), and Ed Towns (D-NY). The bill is named after the drug task force scandal in Tulia, Tex in 1999 during which 15 percent of the town’s African American population was arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to decades in prison based on the uncorroborated testimony of a federally funded undercover officer with a record of racial impropriety.

The defendants have since been pardoned, but Tulia was not an isolated incident. Earlier this month, in a similar case, a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of 27 African Americans was settled out of court. The individuals were arrested in Hearne, Tex., a town of 4,500, on charges of possession or distribution of crack cocaine.

The bill would help put an end to these abuses by enhancing the evidentiary standard required to convict a person for a drug offense, and improving the criteria under which states hire drug task force officers. It would deny federal money to states that do not have laws preventing convictions for drug offenses based solely on uncorroborated testimony.

Similar legislation, passed in Texas, was the work of a coalition of Christian conservatives and civil rights activists. This federal legislation is endorsed by 50 organizations including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative.
The fallout from the Tulia scandal just keeps coming and coming.

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