Tonya White, a former resident of Tulia, Texas, was exonerated yesterday of a felony cocaine charge she faced as the result of a 1999 drug sweep that led to the arrest of 43 residents of the small town. A bank record of a withdrawal made in Oklahoma City helped White prove that she was not in Tulia at the time she was alleged to be making a drug transaction.
Forty of those arrested during the sweep were African American-roughly ten percent of the town's black population. The only evidence against them was the testimony of one undercover officer, Tom Coleman, who worked alone, and who had no audio tapes, video surveillance, or eyewitnesses. (Coleman had quit his previous law enforcement job and fled town to avoid theft charges.)
Many of those Coleman accused of selling drugs are now serving harsh sentences. Some first-time offenders, for example, received more than 20 years in prison. White herself was facing five years to life, before an outside investigator stepped in to prove her innocence.
"Something is very wrong with our justice system when people can serve decades long sentences on the word of one person," said Deborah Small, director of public policy and community outreach at the Drug Policy Alliance. "The Tulia case exemplifies the racial impact that the drug war continues to have all over the country."
Because of the public outcry around the case, the Texas legislature recently passed a law preventing a drug conviction based solely on the testimony of an informant. However, this does not apply retroactively to the Tulia case. The U.S. Justice Department has launched a federal civil rights investigation.
Texas has had several instances of law enforcement corruption in the past year. In April of 2001 a state prosecutor dismissed charges against 17 residents of Hearne who were arrested by a drug task force accused of focusing on African Americans. The prosecutor dismissed the cases after the informant who was responsible for the arrests failed polygraph tests when questioned about tampering with evidence.
In August 2001, eight San Antonio police officers were arrested for plotting to protect a cocaine delivery.
The Dallas police force has also received national attention for a scandal in which narcotics officers used faulty evidence to arrest a number of blue-collar Mexican immigrants on charges of cocaine possession with intent to sell. Jose Luis Vega, an auto mechanic in Dallas, was arrested in August 2001 for allegedly possessing hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of cocaine. When Vega passed a polygraph test, his attorney ordered a test of the alleged "cocaine." Test results showed that the "cocaine" was really a chalk-like material used in sheetrock and other brands of wallboard. It had been ground into powder and packaged to resemble cocaine.
Following this discovery, a number of local defense attorneys demanded similar lab tests of evidence used against their clients. In at least 18 cases involving alleged cocaine seizures by the Dallas police narcotics units in the past year, seized evidence was nearly all ground-up wallboard material and not illegal drugs.
The revelations have led to the dismissal of over 40 cases. Unfortunately, some of those arrested have already been deported. As with the Tulia case, the U.S. Justice Department has launched a federal civil rights investigation.
In recent years there have been a number of other high-profile drug-related police scandals all over the country. California, Florida, Illinois and North Carolina have all experienced similar corruption.
"Like alcohol prohibition, drug prohibition breeds police corruption and abuse," said Bill Piper, associate director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Short of ending drug prohibition, the best action policy makers can take is to direct law enforcement resources toward large-scale sellers; provide treatment instead of incarceration for non-violent, low-level offenders; and pass legislation to reduce the most egregious and systematic violations of civil liberties by drug law enforcers."