Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Somehow, I’m not surprised: Texas makes it nearly impossible to obtain records in police abuse cases

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Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:

Here’s a harrowing story out of Texas, where a couple in the town of Mesquite have spent the past several years trying to learn how and why their son died after being arrested by local police.

Kathy and Robert Dyer received the phone call out of every parent’s nightmares at 3 a.m. on Aug. 14, 2013. A Mesquite police officer was telling them their 18-year-old son, Graham, was in the hospital with a serious head injury. They should come as quickly as possible.

They sped in the dark south to Dallas from their home on a dirt road outside of Paris, in Northeast Texas, arriving at Baylor University Medical Center at dawn. Graham lay unresponsive in the intensive care unit beneath a bristle of medical tubes and instrumentation.

Outside his room, Kathy recalled, a group of police officers prevented them from entering: “They said he was in serious trouble — that he had felony charges for assaulting an officer.” The police told her Graham had been out of his mind on LSD and had bitten one of the officers while they were taking him into custody. He’d seriously injured himself inside the police cruiser as they drove to the jail.

Graham eventually died. After the funeral, his parents noticed items in the hospital records that didn’t match the police account the night he was arrested. So they asked police department for records. They were denied.

As the Austin American-Statesman reports, under state law, police agencies aren’t required to turn over records from investigations that don’t result in a conviction. Because Graham is dead, there would be no conviction.

The particularly pernicious thing here is that the law was intended to protect innocent people from being maligned by police investigations that don’t result in criminal charges. Here, it was being used by a police agency to prevent a dead teen’s parents from learning how their son died. The story only gets more frustrating from there.

Civil rights attorneys say that Texas’s unfriendly law enforcement open records law, when combined with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, create a potent legal Catch-22 that can thwart police accountability.

In the past, civilians like the Dyer family pursuing excessive force claims filed lawsuits to shake loose documents from law enforcement agencies that might prove their case. Yet a pair of high court opinions handed down over the past decade have required civil rights lawsuits to contain ever-more detailed facts about the alleged violations.

“The Supreme Court in recent cases has made it clear that a civil rights claim has to be fairly precise in laying out specific facts outlining cause of action,” said Ranjana Natarajan, director the University of Texas Law School’s civil rights clinic. “You have to say what happened, who did what.”

Those can be the very same details that Texas’s records laws currently allow police to withhold. The result: “It’s very difficult for plaintiffs in civil rights lawsuits, especially when the victim has died, to put together a case,” Natarajan said.

With Texas law exempting basic police records from release, families and their lawyers often must conduct their own costly investigations into what happened before they even know if a case is worthy of a lawsuit. “A lot of families never even bother filing civil rights lawsuits because they know they’ll never get enough information,” Natarajan said. “So the courts never hear them.”

You can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly the point. To file a lawsuit, you need details. But you have to file a lawsuit to force the police to release details.

Graham’s parents did finally . . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

. . . This problem isn’t limited to Texas. Law enforcement agencies know that federal courts require specificity in these types of lawsuits. So there’s a strong incentive to be as stingy with information as possible. We saw this in Kansas, where a couple wrongly raided by a local SWAT team had to spend $25,000 in attorney and court fees just to get a copy of the affidavit for the search warrant the police obtained for the raid. Last year, I wrote about the case of two Michigan women who were wrongly raided by masked Drug Enforcement Administration agents. The agents never gave their names and weren’t wearing badges or name tags. The women spent nine years trying to get the DEA to reveal the agents’ names. It never did, nor would the federal courts compel the agency to do so. The two women finally lost in court last summer — no names, no lawsuit. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2017 at 5:52 pm

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