AUSTIN, TX--The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a class action lawsuit charging racial discrimination in an undercover drug bust that led to the arrest of 15 percent of African-American men between the ages of 18 and 34 in Hearne, a rural community of 5,000 in eastern Texas.
"Our clients have experienced a gross miscarriage of justice," said Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU's Drug Policy Litigation Project and lead attorney in the case. "The arrests were based on nothing more than the word of an informant who had no history of reliability and who was himself facing serious criminal charges."
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Of the ACLU clients named in today's complaint, one man was arrested at the funeral of his 18-month-old daughter and held for a month before charges were dropped. Others were able to show through time cards and witnesses that they were at work during the time they were accused of participating in drug deals.
"Cases like Hearne and Tulia begin to explain the troubling fact that America has more black men in prison than college," Boyd said. "The ACLU is calling for an end to racial profiling in drug arrests, both in Texas and throughout the nation."
Today's lawsuit was filed against the South Central Texas Regional Narcotics Task Force and all of its agents, including the City of Hearne and the County of Robertson. Also named as a defendant is John Paschall, the Hearne District Attorney and former head of the task force's Hearne unit.
"These race-based sweeps and unwarranted detentions of innocent citizens violated the Constitution's protections against discrimination on the basis of race, unreasonable searches and seizures, and the deprivation of liberty without the due process of law," the ACLU complaint charged.
Will Harrell, Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas, said that the Tulia and Hearne cases are not an aberration. To receive federal funding, he said, task forces must have good arrest numbers, and targeting minorities is an easy way for the task forces to pad their statistics. "The Justice Department should take a serious look at how their money is being used in Texas," he said.
The ACLU of Texas has asked the Justice Department to freeze all federal funding for Texas's regional drug task forces because of racially unjust practices by law enforcement in Tulia, Hearne and elsewhere in the state, Harrell said. To date, no action has been taken.
All of the ACLU's Hearne clients spent considerable time in jail before the charges brought against them were dropped in February 2001 because of insufficient evidence and the questionable credibility of a confidential informant.
Regina Kelly, 26, a mother of three, was arrested and indicted on drug charges in November 2000 and is the lead plaintiff in the case. Since charges against her were dropped she has had a difficult time dealing with the stigma of the arrest.
"I am hopeful that this lawsuit will clear my name once and for all," Kelly said. "Hearne is a small town, and I can't get a good job or enroll in college because everyone knows me as a person involved in a drug arrest."
The ACLU is seeking a court order preventing the Task Force and local law enforcement from conducting drug "sweeps" targeted at African-American residents in Hearne and the unlawful arrest, detention, and prosecution of residents based solely on their race. ACLU attorneys are also seeking damages on behalf of the clients for emotional distress, loss of earning capacity and permanent damage to their reputations.