The $6 Million Narc: What Trinidad Could Learn From Botched Texas Drug Stings
This week's Westword cover story, "The Snitch Who Stole Christmas," examines the aftermath of a 2013 police investigation that led to the arrests of forty people in Trinidad for allegedly selling heroin, meth, and other drugs to two undercover informants. The cases were so riddled with legal and procedural problems -- having to do with lax police work, fake drugs and informants with multiple motives for staging buys that may not have happened -- that all of them were eventually thrown out of court, but not before several of the accused had lost jobs and suffered other damage from the operation.
The Trinidad debacle is a chilling example of the drug war run amok. The local police had ample warning about the dangers posed by poorly supervised, "rogue" informants, who can skim money or drugs for themselves while framing innocent people; several of the town's 2012 drug cases had to be thrown out when it was revealed that the informant was using heroin while working for the cops. Yet the Trinidad police changed almost nothing about their approach last year, relying on the paid informants to produce buys while doing little to corroborate the informants' claims of where the drugs had come from.
In two of the cases, the suspects were actually in jail when they were supposedly selling dope on the streets of Trinidad; in several others, the drugs that the police said had field-tested positive for narcotics turned out to be fake. One of the informants later pleaded guilty to perjury.
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The entire episode has overtones of some even worse drug-war scandals that erupted in a couple of small towns in Texas fifteen years ago, resulting in lawsuits over civil rights violations and hefty settlements. The most infamous was a 1999 drug sting in Tulia, Texas, that resulted in 46 arrests. The cases relied almost entirely on the word of one "gypsy" undercover cop, Tom Coleman, who hired himself out to rural law enforcement agencies for the express purpose of making drug busts.
The Tulia operation reeked from the get-go. There was no corroboration of the buys, and nothing in the background of most defendants that suggested they were drug dealers. And the overwhelming majority of the targets were African-Americans; thanks to Coleman, nearly a third of the town's black males found themselves behind bars. A few were able to prove that they were at work or elsewhere when the buys supposedly went down, but others pleaded guilty out of fear of receiving maximum sentences if they went to trial.
By the time the scam was revealed, some of the defendants had spent several years in prison. The mess resulted in a $6 million settlement and the disbanding of a federally funded, 26-county narcotics task force; Coleman was found guilty of perjury in 2005. A similar operation in Hearne, Texas, in 2000 also resulted in a lawsuit and settlement with more than two dozen African-American defendants.
The Tulia case led to some major overhauls of Texas laws governing the use of informants. It has also been the subject of at least two documentaries. Director John Singleton is reportedly working on a feature film about the case, starring Halle Berry as the crusading civil-rights attorney; no production date has been announced. But the town fathers of Trinidad, facing possible civil action themselves for last year's Christmas turkey, shouldn't wait for the movie version to hit theaters to learn a few lessons from what happened in Tulia. Have a tip? E-mail email@example.com.
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