The Dallas police fake-drug scandal

If I hadn’t lent my car to someone who switch from the CD player to the radio and left it tuned to NPR, I probably never would have heard about the Dallas police fake-drug scandal. Googling it, I find no mention in any of the national media, except for one column by Ruben Navarrette carried by the WaPo syndicate.

As I piece it together, it’s pretty hair-raising.

Dallas police paid their drug informants based on the quantity of drugs seized. So some informants decided to manufacture cases by planting fake “cocaine” — variously described as the powder used to chalk billiard cues and as ground-up gypsum wallboard — on about 80 Mexican immigrants.

The police did “field tests,” all of which mysteriously registered positive for cocaine, and testified to having witnessed transactions that never happened. (After a long investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted only one cop, and he was acquitted after what seems to have been a fairly badly bungled prosecution.)

The defendants, charged with possession of massive amounts of cocaine, were held on high bail, and since they weren’t in fact drug dealers they sat in jail awaiting trial. The public defender’s office refused to pay for independent lab testing, and several of the defendants pleaded guilty to avoid 10- and 20- year mandatory sentences.

Eventually the truth came to light. One source credits that result to a new law passed after the Tulia scandal; NPR says it was because some of the defendants’ families paid for private lawyers, who arranged for their own chemical analysis. Eventually, the DA somewhat grudgingly dismissed all the cases. I can find no mention of compensation being paid to any of the victims. Of course, the defendants who were here illegally and have been deported aren’t around to sue.

So what do we learn from this?

1. Almost all defendants are guilty. But there’s a big difference between “almost all” and “all.”

2. Paying informants is always dangerous. Informants lie. So competent investigation and prosecution requires double-checking what they say.

3. Enforcement against transactional crimes is always a tricky business. As long as we have drug laws, we’re going to have problems like this one. I think we need those laws, but that means that we need to be vigilant about the problems.

4. No police officer ever got a promotion for showing that someone was innocent.

5. Forsensic laboratory work is the stepchild of law enforcement. That needs to be fixed.

6. In most of the country, public defenders are underfunded. In some parts of the country, and especially in the South, they are not only grossly underfunded but under substantial political pressure not to slow down the wheels of “justice.” At some point, the federal courts are going to have to step in and enforce the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Justice shouldn’t be for sale.

7. Juries don’t mind convicting cops for stealing, but they really don’t like convicting them for lying in the course of their duties.

8. Every state ought to have a small but well-paid staff of lawyers and investigators, with the same powers as ordinary police and prosecutors, whose job is exonerating the innocent and punishing those whose false testimony led to their incarceration. The penalty for falsely implicating someone in a crime should be the same as the penalty for the underlying offense.

9. What liberal media?

Update: Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer has more on the scandal and the new investigation. He doesn’t like what he sees.

On one point I have to differ with Schutze: If I were a cop who had faked evidence, the last guy I’d want on my case would be an ex-FBI agent. I have lots of bones to pick with the Bureau, but the people there are pretty much straight arrows, and by and large they take a very dim view of people who cut corners. They also think they’re a superior breed of human being to the ordinary cop, which is a problem when they have to work with the locals but means that they don’t really identify wit the potential defendants in this case.

Remember, this wasn’t about faking evidence against guilty people, or even people the cops thought in good faith were guilty (which happens more than you’d like to think, and which many people in law enforcement don’t really disapprove of): this was framing people to get the numbers up, and maybe for a share of the bounty money. The cops involved in this were dirty, dirty, dirty, and the average ex-Feeb will get as much satisfaction from sending them for long spells as he would from doing the same to routine bad guys. Maybe more.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

5 thoughts on “The Dallas police fake-drug scandal”

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  3. Dallas police fake-drug scandal

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