Texas Drug Task Force Violates Rights by Engaging in Unnecessary Searches, Racial Profiling, ACLU Charges

May 19, 2004

Massive Traffic Stops of Innocent People Net Millions in Seized Funds, According to ACLU of Texas Report

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

AUSTIN, TX - The state's federally funded narcotic task forces are performing thousands of baseless searches at traffic stops and engaging in illegal racial profiling, according to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

"Our study found that blacks are searched more often than whites by eight of nine narcotic task forces," said Scott Henson, director of the ACLU of Texas Police Accountability Project and the report's author. "Seven of nine task forces searched Latinos more often than whites."

"The Department of Public Safety compounded the situation by providing little guidance or oversight regarding racial profiling data collection and analysis. If they had just looked at the data, it would have been clear the task forces weren't complying with DPS rules," Henson added.

The ACLU report, "Flawed Enforcement," analyzed racial profiling data and other information about narcotics task force activities collected through the Texas Public Information Act. In addition to troubling indications of racial profiling, the ACLU found that narcotics task forces tended to search all drivers at much higher rates than regular police and sheriff's departments, and almost never gave tickets at traffic stops, even though task force officers stopped thousands of cars for alleged violations. 

"One can only conclude that the task forces are using this blanket traffic stop approach as a pretext to search for drugs and cash, which generates income for them under federal asset forfeiture laws," said Will Harrell, Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas. 

Many task forces rely on seized assets from these highway interdiction programs to pay their local share under a federal matching-funds program, the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program. State and federal laws allow task forces to generate income from seized properties like vehicles and cash from persons engaged in - or merely accused of - illegal drug trafficking, Harrell explained. The task forces then use the seized assets to apply for federal matching funds to finance their work. 

An analysis of local matching funds generated in 2002 determined that $7 million, or 40 percent, of the $17.3 million in federal funds the task forces applied for was directly attributable to task force property seizures.

"The task forces are willing to violate thousands of Texans' rights for the chance to capitalize on seized properties," said Harrell. "Those seized funds are then used to draw down more federal funds, which they use to violate more people's rights. And in the process, they are not interdicting drug traffic. It's a vicious circle."

The ACLU report includes a set of findings and recommendations for the state of Texas and the federal government. They include:

  • Changing funding priorities to more effectively combat illegal drug trafficking;
  • Requiring task forces to report all racial profiling data to Texas; and 
  • Eliminating multijurisdictional narcotic task forces funding under the federal Byrne grant program.

The report is available online at /cpredirect/15897

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