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Racist arrests in Tulia, Texas

Document Date: June 30, 2003

In July of 1999, 10% of the African-American population in Tulia, Texas, a small town of 5,000 in the Texas Panhandle, was arrested on drug charges solely on the testimony of a single undercover officer. The arrests of 46 people, 39 of them black, resulted in 38 convictions for various drug charges with sentences of up to 90 years in prison. In early April 2003, a Dallas judge threw out all 38 drug convictions from Tulia because they were based on questionable testimony from a single undercover agent accused of racial prejudice. On June 16, 12 of the defendants remaining in the case (most of the others accepted plea-bargains in order to avoid lengthy prison sentences), were freed after Texas Gov. Perry signed a bill authorizing their release.

The officer responsible for the racially motivated arrests is Tom Coleman, a Texas cop with a checkered past and a self-declared fondness for racial epithets. At the time, Coleman was working for the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force, one of an estimated 1,000 drug task forces operating across America with very little oversight or accountability. According to Randy Credico of the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which was instrumental in bringing Tulia to the public’s attention, “The Panhandle task force was the beneficiary of Coleman’s lies. The more busts he made and the more convictions he helped win, the more federal grant money the task force received.”

Perversely, in this “”bucks-for-busts”” world, Coleman was named Texas’ outstanding narcotics officer in 2000. This is surprising since Coleman kept no written records, not a single photograph was taken, no video was shot, and no one observed his buys. Every ensuing conviction relied only on his word. The Texas judge who freed the defendants in June called Coleman “the most devious, non-responsive law enforcement witness this Court has witnessed in 25 years on the bench in Texas.” According to the Court’s findings, Coleman submitted false reports, misrepresented his investigative work, and misidentified various defendants during his investigation.

Subsequent to the April ruling, Coleman was indicted on three counts of perjury in an unrelated case. Although he faces up to 10 years in prison, his misdeeds in the Tulia case have yet to be formally recognized. Furthermore, the “”Tulia 12″” have not been completely exonerated. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals must approve the ruling for their convictions, and those of the 26 others ensnared in the bogus drug sting, to be thrown out. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles should also do its part by pardoning the defendants or granting clemency or commutation in the cases.

The ACLU of Texas has urged state lawmakers to vote for a bill that requires corroboration of undercover law enforcement officers’ testimony before a defendant is convicted. However, racially motivated arrests and violations of civil liberties like the Tulia case, continue to run amock in our judicial system.

Find out more about what the ACLU is doing to combat racial profiling and other injustices of the drug war. Find out what you can do at the ACLU’s Action Center!

Return to the Racial Profiling section of the “Lost Liberties” feature.

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