The Austin Chronicle

ACLU Blasts Drug Task Forces

By Jordan Smith, May 28, 2004, News

Texas' much-maligned, federally funded regional narcotics task forces have earned their bad reputation, the ACLU of Texas reports in "Flawed Enforcement," the second installment of a two-part study of the regional operations. The RNTFs receive little oversight from the Department of Public Safety, and this fact encourages their nefarious conduct – like apparent racial profiling and unhealthy dependence on consent searches to further interdiction and subsequent asset-forfeiture operations, according to the ACLU study.

Task force operations are primarily funded by block grants from the federal Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program. While these grants are earmarked for nearly 30 different criminal-justice activities, in Texas 90% of Byrne monies are spent to fund RNTF operations – operations that have been implicated in numerous scandals. The Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, based in Amarillo, was responsible for the infamous Tulia drug arrests. In Austin, the now-defunct Capital Area Narcotics Task Force was responsible for a raid at the home of Spicewood resident Sandy Smith, where officers held Smith and friends at gunpoint for nearly 45 minutes before realizing that what they thought was a stand of marijuana was actually a thicket of ragweed.

The ACLU report focuses on RNTF traffic interdiction efforts – one part of the task forces' mandate to stem the flow of illegal drugs. According to the ACLU, the interdiction activities are just as flawed as the drug stings like the Tulia escapade. Nearly 99% of all the RNTF stops studied resulted in no traffic citation for the driver; up to 98% of task force searches were "consent searches," meaning the officers had no probable cause to inspect the car's interior.

The ACLU reports that "the overwhelming majority of RNTF interdiction efforts amount to fishing expeditions that contribute little to traffic safety. ... Instead, interdiction permits task force officers to pull over and search thousands of innocent Texans each year" in order to probe for contraband. If they find it, they can initiate asset forfeiture – seizing any and all property alleged to be involved in the drug trade. The proceeds from the sale of those assets go into the pockets of the task force. The office of the Governor's criminal justice division – responsible for "overseeing" task force operations before turning over that responsibility to the DPS – ranks the efficacy of each task force, and thus its worthiness for future grant funding, by its forfeiture haul – a situation obviously ripe for abuse.

Moreover, the ACLU reports that the data from a handful of regional operations suggests racial disparity in which drivers are targeted for stops and searches. Determining racial bias in task force activities is difficult, since the DPS has not required the groups to collect that data. "[S]tate officials claim that Byrne task forces are not law enforcement agencies in a legal sense, but instead are structured as collaborative agreements between multiple counties," reads the report. "Since task forces are not legally 'agencies,' DPS reasoned, they should not be required to produce racial profiling reports, nor even to adopt 'strict written policies that prohibit racial profiling.'"

Since regional TF operations are fraught with scandal and void of meaningful oversight, the ACLU report recommends disbanding the units and focusing Texas' Byrne funds on initiatives such as drug treatment and drug court programs, homeland security operations, crime lab upgrades, or any of the other numerous "allowable programs."

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