Pubdate: Fri, 11 Jun 2004
Source: Amarillo Globe-News (TX)
Copyright: 2004 Amarillo Globe-News
Author: Greg Cunningham
Bookmark: (Drug Raids)
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


Man Claims He Suffered Abuse During 2001 Drug Raid

Almost two months after it was settled, the specter of the Tulia drug bust 
lawsuit still hangs over the Texas Panhandle, haunting city and county 
officials who were wrong if they thought they were done with the 
controversy. The latest incarnation of the Tulia suit comes in the form of 
a federal suit, similar in form to the Tulia action, that was filed this 
year by an Amarillo man who says he was abused by members of the same drug 
task force that conducted the controversial 1999 Tulia drug sting.

For the 26 counties and four municipalities that made up the task force, 
officials say this latest suit is unlikely to be the last.

"We anticipated when we settled the Tulia case that there would be some 
plaintiffs' lawyers that would view the city as a slot machine," said 
Amarillo City Attorney Marcus Norris. "We anticipated having to go to 
trial. Win, lose or draw, we're going to have to correct that misconception 
by taking these cases to court."

The city of Amarillo took the lead in settling the Tulia lawsuit this year, 
ponying up $5 million of an eventual $6 million settlement and agreeing to 
disband the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force.

That lawsuit was filed on behalf of the 46 people, 39 of them black, who 
were arrested in the 1999 Tulia investigation, which was conducted by 
undercover agent Tom Coleman and supervised by the PRNTF.

The sting led to accusations of racism and police misconduct, and it 
resulted in Gov. Rick Perry issuing pardons to nearly all who were arrested.

The latest suit names as defendants the same municipalities, counties and 
officials that made up the PRNTF, with the exception of Coleman, accusing 
them of violating the constitutional rights of William E. Plemons, who was 
caught in a 2001 drug raid.

Plemons' Amarillo attorney, George Whittenburg, said the lawsuit bears some 
similarity to the Tulia litigation but contains different allegations of 
police misconduct.

"This is an entirely different matter, although there are some common 
elements," Whittenburg said. "Once you get a task force that's sort of out 
of control, they feel above the law. In our instance, it wasn't a racial 
thing like Tulia, it was simply excessive force used by arrogant, inhumane 
police officers."

The similarities in the suit are there because Plemons, who did not return 
a phone call seeking comment, filed the original suit himself based on the 
Tulia action before finding an attorney to represent him, Whittenburg said.

According to the lawsuit, Plemons was a customer in an Amarillo furniture 
store Dec. 13, 2001, when officers connected with the PRNTF conducted a 
drug raid. Plemons was forcefully handcuffed, with officers stepping on his 
ankles and stomping on his back, the suit claims.

Whittenburg said Plemons, who was released without charges after a couple 
of hours, has a medical condition that was exacerbated by the alleged 
assault, causing him great suffering and medical costs.

Norris does not dispute that Plemons was handcuffed and later released, but 
he said officers acted properly in serving the search warrant.

Investigators had a tip that the owner of the furniture store was selling 
drugs and perhaps was armed. Because of the danger, Norris said, officials 
decided to use the SWAT team to serve the warrant.

"If you've ever watched TV, you know how it happens," Norris said. "They 
run in hollering, 'Police, get on the floor.' They quickly move in, get 
everybody on the floor and get them handcuffed. Then you set them on 
couches and begin sorting out who has done what."

Norris said his office reviewed an internal Amarillo Police Department 
investigation and determined that police did not use excessive force.

Those questions will be worked out in court, but Norris said the Plemons 
suit is unlikely to be the last filed because of the Tulia suit. He said he 
is aware of two suits, coming from Dallas-area lawyers, that are in the 
process of being filed or are likely to be filed.

The precedent of the Tulia settlement, Norris said, means Amarillo will 
have to fight the suits until word gets out that Tulia was an isolated 
incident with a unique set of circumstances that will not apply to other suits.

"Tulia was unique in so many ways," Norris said. "Now, even smaller cases 
that we might have settled a couple of years ago, we expect to go to trial. 
Unless someone can really show us clear and significant liability, we're 
not going to be settling cases. Plaintiffs' lawyers are going to have to 
earn their money."

That takes care of Amarillo, but the latest lawsuit - and any future 
lawsuits - likely will name the other municipalities and counties involved 
in the task force. Those entities will also be dealing with the fallout 
from the settlement.

James Farren, Randall County criminal district attorney, said his county, 
which paid $25,000 to settle its part of the Tulia lawsuit, will take each 
case on an individual basis in dealing with the settlement fallout.

"It has always been our position that the Tulia suit was frivolous," Farren 
said. "We don't believe the suit justified a $5 million settlement.

"Whether we agree with the settlement is water under the bridge. The fact 
is (Amarillo) did settle for that, and that kind of carrot on the end of 
the stick is going to bring out a lot of attorneys looking to take a bite."
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