Pubdate: Sun, 26 Oct 2003
Source: Amarillo Globe-News (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Amarillo Globe-News
Author: Allen Finegold

Guest Column


Coleman Not Solely Culpable

The central argument of your Oct. 2 editorial, "Drawing the line for Tulia 
justice," was stated as follows:

"So far only one person faces legal charges related to the Tulia drug sting 
fiasco and that is former undercover officer Tom Coleman, who fingered 46 
people, 39 of them black, on dubious drug-related charges. To hold almost 
the entire Panhandle law enforcement community responsible for Coleman's 
actions is another travesty of justice."

Actually, that depends upon how it is being held responsible.

To hold every individual in Panhandle law enforcement responsible for 
Coleman's actions would be a travesty. But the lawsuit filed on behalf of 
Tonya White and Zuri Bossett does not hold anyone individually responsible 
for Coleman's actions except Coleman. The lawsuit holds the members of the 
Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force collectively responsible for 
Coleman's actions.

This is as it should be. Coleman acted as a paid agent of PRNTF.

The Globe-News editorialist wrote:

"The lawsuit alleges that . . . 26 Panhandle counties and four cities 
included in the task force used Coleman as an undercover officer. . . . Not 
surprisingly, many of these entities have requested the lawsuit be dismissed.

"Why should cities and counties, more specifically taxpayers, be held 
financially liable for Coleman, a person most Panhandle county and city 
officials probably had never heard of before 1999?"

That's exactly why. The agency they supported, and authorized to act on 
their behalf, let a man of dubious reputation, virtually unknown to anyone 
in regional law enforcement, put 46 people in prison through his perjured 
testimony. Forty-six people were unjustly and unlawfully deprived of their 
liberty - some for as long as four years.

What would four years of your life be worth?

It is rudimentary to the law of torts that if you willfully harm someone, 
then you are responsible for what you did to him - unless you acted in 
defense of yourself or another person. If not, you are liable for the 
financial compensation due him. The same principle applies to corporate 
entities that inflict harm on individuals. And the more serious the harm, 
the greater should be the compensation.

The only legal justification for not holding governments accountable for 
deliberate and unjust harm they inflict upon individuals is an old English 
common law doctrine called sovereign immunity. This doctrine asserts, 
essentially, that an individual cannot be allowed to sue the sovereign, 
i.e., the king, because the king is a real important guy and the rest of us 
are peasants. That's a doctrine American jurisprudence should have 
jettisoned long ago.

I can understand why public officials don't want to pay such damages, 
especially in cases where law enforcement officers acted as carefully and 
conscientiously as possible and simply made a mistake in arresting and/or 
prosecuting someone for a criminal offense he did not commit. But if there 
is anything that is clear about the Tulia drug bust, it is that the law 
enforcement officer involved acted in a manner totally devoid of conscience 
and with reckless disregard for both the truth and the rights of the 
persons he accused.

Moreover, the district attorney who prosecuted the defendants did so while 
knowing that there was no physical evidence against any of them.

Indeed, in each case, the only evidence (if it can be called that) was the 
uncorroborated testimony of Tom Coleman.

Thus, the district attorney in Swisher County also disregarded the rights 
of the defendants.

The whole travesty was financed by funds from the PRNTF. Coleman was the 
agent of the PRNTF. The PRNTF never repudiated his actions during the 
trials of any of the persons accused. (It still hasn't!)

So the PRNTF, whatever kind of legal entity that is, is responsible for his 

PRNTF should be compelled by the courts to compensate the individuals who 
were unjustly imprisoned. The responsibility for this unjust imprisonment 
is not merely Coleman's. It extends to those who hired and empowered him.

Far from setting a "horrible precedent" for law enforcement officials and 
taxpayers, the paying of compensation in this suit would set an fitting 

If officers of a law enforcement agency show a contemptuous disregard for 
the rights of the citizenry, then the agency will be held accountable for 
the actions of those officers. Indeed, it may lose the funds that enable 
its officers to operate in such a reckless and reprehensible fashion.

Allen Finegold, a longtime resident of Amarillo, is a frequent contributor 
to the Other Opinion page.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman