Second Thought: Wednesday, September 17, 2003
Tomorrow’s Tulias

The drug task force system needs to be fixed, before a bad system lands more innocent people in jail.


On Aug. 22, Gov. Rick Perry pardoned 35 people wrongfully convicted — people whose convictions had already been overturned by the courts — in the Tulia, Texas, drug scandal. The pardons all but close the book on one of the more outrageous miscarriages of justice in recent Texas memory. But closing the book on Tulia is a far cry from fixing what caused it.

The Tulia outrage began in 1998, when Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart hired Tom Coleman, a vagabond deputy sheriff who was then under indictment in another Texas county, to help the Panhandle Regional Drug Task Force root out and eliminate the alleged cocaine underworld in the small (pop. 5,000) bleached-out north Texas town of Tulia. Coleman spent 18 months claiming he was buying small amounts of powder cocaine from mostly dirt-poor, black residents of Tulia.

Despite Coleman’s failure to take notes, record the drug deals on audio or videotape, or find corroborating witnesses, on July 23, 1999, a total of 46 people fingered by Coleman were arrested and charged with cocaine offenses. Interestingly, none of them had any drugs in their possession when arrested. Neither were there guns, lists of names, drug-packaging materials, or any of the other usual accoutrements of the drug trade — nothing to show that Coleman wasn’t just making the entire thing up out of whole cloth.

But the lack of evidence seemed not to matter to juries. Many of the early trials produced harsh sentences: Several defendants got 10 years or more in prison, while one man got 90 years and another, whose parole on an earlier conviction was revoked, ended up with a total of 407 years. Seeing those outcomes, 27 other defendants pleaded guilty in exchange for relatively light sentences. A handful of others received deferred adjudication.

For his work, Coleman earned the coveted Texas “Lawman of the Year Award,” presented by then-state Attorney General and current U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. Fortunately, Amarillo defense attorney Jeff Blackburn eventually stepped in; when he was able to prove that his client was in Oklahoma at the time of her alleged drug sale to Coleman in Tulia, her case was dismissed. After that, all of the cases began to unravel and were eventually overturned last April by Dallas District Court Judge Ron Chapman, leading to last month’s pardons. Coleman is now facing perjury charges for his testimony in the scandal.

Coleman’s removal, however, did not address the root cause of the Tulia tragedy and 15 other scandals that have surfaced among Texas’ regional drug task forces in the past five years. Because of that failure, many more scandals can be expected. The root cause is the way in which these regional task forces, made up of officers from several different counties and specializing in battling street-level dealers, are funded.

The federal Edward Byrne Memorial Fund, established in 1988 to honor a New York City police officer killed by a low-level drug dealer, provides 75 percent of the task force funding; counties chip in the other 25 percent. In Texas, 45 such teams vie for shares of roughly $30 million in federal grant monies given to the state annually. The state decides how to divvy up those funds, and the task forces with the best numbers generally get the biggest pieces of the pie. Not the group with the most important arrests or the task force that had the largest impact on drug crime — but simply the one with the most convictions. In the Tulia case, it was infinitely better for the task force that Coleman’s work led to three dozen small-time convictions than it would have been to get one real drug dealer.

But an even bigger problem comes from the local funding. Much of the counties’ 25 percent share of the task force money comes from property forfeitures engendered by the task forces themselves. Arrest someone dealing from a car, and you not only get the arrest, you can get the car declared forfeit — because it was used in the commission of the crime — and sell it at auction, with proceeds going into the kitty that will eventually pay part of your salary and all of your next year’s overtime. The more property you can forfeit, the more money you can allot to your future guaranteed overtime, to better cars for your force, to more gadgets and so forth. Moreover, the more money a regional task force can raise, the more it can ask for from the $30 million in federal funds.

The math adds up to this: More small-time arrests connected with property seizures mean more job security. What cop in his right mind would rather pull traffic duty on Hulen than be part of a glamorous narcotics detail? The same greed affects prosecutors. District attorneys’ offices share in the forfeited funds, and prosecutors get promotions based on conviction rates. To such prosecutors, a parade of low-level dealers with court-appointed attorneys willing to plead out their clients looks like manna from heaven.

Because of what happened in Tulia, a new Texas law now prohibits the arrest of a suspect based solely on the uncorroborated word of a confidential informant. But that’s not enough. The state and federal governments need to change the way the regional drug task forces are funded and how their work is evaluated. Until that happens, other “Tulias” will continue to happen, in Texas and elsewhere.

Peter Gorman is a local freelance journalist.

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