Pass the Tulia Bills

Governor Perry got off to a good start when he declared access to post-conviction DNA testing his first piece of “emergency legislation” as Governor. That much-needed bill is well on its way to Perry’s desk. Close behind it ought to be a package of criminal justice reform bills, sponsored by Rep. Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen) and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), collectively known as the Tulia bills.

The three bills were conceived in the aftermath of a controversial drug sting in the Panhandle town of Tulia, which put over 10 percent of the town’s black population behind bars on the uncorroborated testimony of a single undercover agent, whose own credibility has been seriously questioned (see “Color of Justice,” June 23, 2000 by Nate Blakeslee). The lesson of Tulia is not how exceptionally corrupt law enforcement in Swisher County is, but how common the story is in many respects.

In fact, in the short time since it helped craft these bills, the ACLU has identified six more “Tulia’s” across the state. One is the Central Texas town of Hearne. Last year, cases there were made not by an undercover officer, but by an ex-convict who was offered a chance to snitch in exchange for leniency in a pending burglary case. As in Tulia, none of the dozens of buys he allegedly made were corroborated by a second officer, or by audio or video surveillance. And once again, virtually every defendant targeted was African American. In late March, the ACLU lodged an official complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and sought to add the Hearne case to its ongoing civil suit in Tulia, where an FBI investigation is also underway. Like the Tulia sting, the Hearne bust does not bear up under scrutiny: As we went to press, the district attorney announced he was dismissing 17 of the cases, citing a lack of confidence in his informant.

This has become the model of the modern drug war: Targeting so-called “street level dealers”, often just addicts themselves, with small buys just big enough to qualify for lengthy prison sentences. The emphasis is on making as many cases as possible, regardless of the size. Virtually no drugs are taken off the streets, and higher level dealers are not targeted at all. The standard of evidence required, and the level of professionalism in these operations, have become alarmingly low.

The Tulia bills attack the potential for abuse in this model of law enforcement. House Bill 2350 makes an officer’s state licensure file more accessible to the public.( After considerable wrangling, defense lawyers in Tulia discovered damning evidence of previous misconduct in Agent Tom Coleman’s file.) Accompanying this bill is H.B. 2352, which limits a judge’s discretion to exclude evidence that might exonerate defendants. Damning information about Coleman’s past was not allowed into evidence in the majority of the Tulia trials, despite the fact that he was the sole witness for the prosecution in most of the cases.

The most far-reaching and controversial measure is H.B. 2351, which would prevent cases from being made on the uncorroborated testimony of one officer. Prosecutors and law enforcement lobbyists vehemently attacked this measure in a tense March 26 hearing, which was attended by family members and supporters of the Tulia defendants. The bill is set to be taken up again the second week in April. ACLU board member Kathy Mitchell is cautiously optimistic. “Even the most conservative members are looking at the Tulia video [from ABC’s 20/20] and these terrible cases and wondering if something has gone wrong,” she said. Governor Perry (and House Speaker Pete Laney, whose district includes Tulia) could speed things along by throwing some weight behind these bills. The people of Texas need emergency relief from the drug war. –N.B.

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Published at 12:00 am CST