Sunday, April 11, 2021

Two decades after Tulia, corroboration requirement for police in drug cases may finally have its day

Debates around the Texas George Floyd Act have revived discussions of accountability in drug enforcement that first arose two decades ago following the Tulia drug stings. Regular readers know George Floyd was one of scores of Houstonians convicted of drug possession based on the uncorroborated testimony of Houston Police Narcotics Officer Gerald Goines, whose mendacious testimony about fabricated informants resulted in the deadly Harding Street raid.

Goines' case - and the audit of the HPD narcotics unit showing similar practices by other officers were largely unregulated and unsupervised - revived failed efforts following the Tulia episode to require corroboration for police officer testimony in drug cases. This week, HB 834 (Thompson) requiring corroboration for undercover officers in drug cases passed out of committee.

Notably, as if to corroborate the need for corroboration, a couple of days before that bill cleared committee, a similar case arose in the national press. A NYPD narcotics detective responsible for thousands of arrests was found to have falsified testimony in at least 90 cases and likely many more.

Like Gerald Goines and Tom Coleman, NYPD Detective Joseph Franco has caused incalculable harm. As in Houston with Goines' victims:

erasing records can only go so far, public defenders say.

“The damage is done at the point of arrest,” said Tina Luongo, a lawyer who heads the criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society. “They likely had bail set on them, spent time at Rikers Island, lost jobs, were separated from their families — no matter what happens, those harms were done.” 

How much of that could have been prevented just by requiring some evidence - any evidence - beyond a police officers' word to secure a conviction?

On the most recent Reasonably Suspicious podcast, Mandy and I interviewed Jeff Blackburn, a civil rights lawyer out of Amarillo (and my old boss at the Innocence Project of Texas) about the Tulia drug stings and pending legislation to require corroboration. Jeff also testified by video at the hearing for HB 834, which is a stand-alone bill including the corroboration provision from the #TexasGeorgeFloydAct. I pulled that podcast segment out as a little seven-minute stand-alone, you can listen to it here:

Grits is excited this Texas legislation appears to have legs this year, but part of me can't help but lament our failure to secure this reform 20 years ago. Back then, the corroboration bill was scaled back to require it only for informants, not police officers, How many false convictions and abuses of power might have been prevented in the ensuing two decades if we'd won this reform back in the day? We will never know. But better late than never, the Texas Legislature has an opportunity to rectify this oversight now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It takes nothing to arrest anyone, and very little for a conviction. All it takes is a ''victim'' who may or may not have their own agenda.. and a couple of Detectives who will plant evidence, maybe forge witness Statement and are willing to lie on the stand to both the Grand Jury and at trial. Throw in a Jury who tends to believe law enforcement and you will find yourself in prison.. guilty or not.
And I note the system fails totally in restoring them or repairing any damage done to the innocent. Even removing a record takes time and money .

Perhaps its time to also allow some defense at Grand Jury hearings and transparency also. Why all the secrecy surrounding those hearings ?

And I do know if there is false/perjured testimony given at a Grand Jury hearing by a Detective or anyone for that matter the indictment is not just ''thrown out '' , the case moves on to trial anyhow.