August 28, 2008

updated

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

TELLURIDE, CO – The devastating impact of America's "war on drugs" will be on prominent display this weekend at the Telluride Film Festival with the premiere of "American Violet," a film based on the racially charged drug war scandal that rocked the town of Hearne, Texas, several years ago. Directed by Tim Disney and written by Bill Haney, the film stars Alfre Woodard, Will Patton and Tim Blake Nelson.

"The Hearne case is a poignant example of the incredible damage done by the so-called 'war on drugs,' and 'American Violet' highlights efforts we at the ACLU have made to bring justice to our nation's drug policy," said Graham Boyd, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Project. "Sadly, the systemic injustice exposed in the film continues to plague us to this day, its root causes in urgent need of reform."

As recounted in the film, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 15 African American residents of Hearne who were indicted in November 2000 on drug charges after being rounded up in a series of unlawful paramilitary drug "sweeps." These undercover drug busts, which led to the arrest of 15 percent of the African American men between the ages of 18 and 34 in Hearne, were uniformly undertaken based on the uncorroborated word of a single unreliable confidential informant coerced by police to make cases.

Despite clear indication of their innocence, all of the ACLU's Hearne clients spent considerable time in jail before the charges brought against them were dropped in February 2001 due to insufficient evidence and the questionable credibility of the confidential informant.

Many of their neighbors were not so fortunate. Facing trumped up charges designed to illicit guilty pleas, many innocent individuals pled to lesser charges rather than face decades behind bars. Far from an aberration, the tactic of threatening excessive charges while dangling plea-bargains has become a hallmark of drug prosecutions, leading countless innocent individuals to plead guilty and face the numerous collateral consequences that come with a drug conviction, such as denial of government benefits, eviction from public housing and inability to secure employment.

At the heart of "American Violet" and much drug war injustice lies the misuse of confidential informants. As in the film, many informants are clearly unreliable career criminals pressured or bribed to generate cases within their community, frequently leading to the arrest and prosecution of innocent individuals. The use of informants currently lacks appropriate oversight and regulation, allowing for predictably disastrous outcomes, like the tragedy in Hearne.

"There is no question that an informant can be an indispensable resource for law enforcement – a necessary evil – if used properly," said Boyd. "But putting police work in the hands of known criminals and blindly trusting that justice will be done is an unnecessary evil and an invitation to abuse."

The ACLU is presently working to introduce federal legislation to reform the informant system.

Additional information is available online at: www.aclu.org/unnecessaryevil

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