Law? What Law?

Dallas cops don't need no stinking law

The fake-drugs scandal, in which the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office used faked-up narcotics evidence to make cases on innocent Mexican immigrants, is scary because it illustrates a total disregard for the law. But maybe it seems far away from the average citizen, way over in that foreign part of town where they have that bizarre drug subculture.

It's bad, you know, but it's a little like violent thermal events on the sun. How much time do we really have to pay attention to this stuff?

Allow me to offer this two-bit caution: Disregard for the law is disregard for the law, and if it can work against defendants in big cocaine cases, it can work against you, too, when you go to put out the trash.

Case in point: Steven Meeks.

Meeks is a longtime Dallas resident, a professional artist who has served on public boards and committees, a big volunteer in programs for kids. He owns some properties around his home in Oak Cliff, near Herndon Park in the Illinois, Marsalis area--a cool, very picturesque little corner of Oak Cliff. The neighborhood suffers all the typical urban dilemmas but is buoyed up by a dedicated core of solid citizens determined to make it work. Meeks is one.

So in January 2001, Meeks gets into some kind of jackpot with code compliance over one of his properties. They say he's not rehabbing it fast enough, and if he doesn't speed up the process, the city will tear it down. I live in a very old house; I understand. There are days, if the city threatened to knock down my house, I would grab a folding chair and some popcorn and sit across the street and cheer. Sell damn tickets to watch.

But Meeks gets to work. The main thing he has to do is tear off a roof and put a new one on to weather the house in. He hires some teen-age kids to help, rents a U-Haul and arranges for an estimate from the city's "Cost-Plus" program for hauling off all the roofing rubble.

They call it Cost-Plus now; I have the impression it has had different names or maybe no name in the past, but this is a city service that has been around forever and I have to believe is known to the vast majority of property owners in the city of Dallas. You pay the sanitation trucks to come out and haul off your stuff on a day not regularly scheduled for pickups on your street.

Meeks has to get his U-Haul back the next morning. It's dusk on a nippy January night. At 6:45 p.m., Officers Adolfo Vega and Mark McLachlan, assigned to the police department's Southwest Division, pull up to the curb to investigate a complaint of illegal dumping.

This much is not in dispute: Near the site where Meeks and his helpers were emptying rubble onto a parkway from their trailer, right in front of the house the rubble came from, was a city sign that said "No Dumping."

But Meeks was not dumping.

I spoke to code compliance. They told me Meeks had to place his construction debris right where he put it. It would have been illegal for him to put it anywhere but in front of the property it came from. They also said depositing trash on the parkway and then arranging for it to be hauled is not dumping. Dumping is when you toss the stuff and run.

Also not in dispute: All four of the police officers who eventually devoted several hours that night to the big roofing caper have said from the beginning that they had never heard of Cost-Plus or any similar kind of program and didn't believe it existed. How, we wonder, can Dallas police officers not know of a program this old or this widely used?

Could it have anything to do with the fact that 76.6 percent of Dallas police officers don't live in Dallas, according to numbers from the city's Human Resources Department? I tried for several days to reach all the police personnel involved in this matter. The only one I succeeded in talking to, because he happened to be standing by the phone one day when I tried again, said he does not live in Dallas and had no idea where the others reside.

Meeks told me: "I think one of the officers told us to get down out of the truck and put our hands on the car, so we complied with that."

All right. I don't know that I believe a homeowner accused of illegal dumping in cushier realms, say Preston Hollow, is going to wind up taking the position on the hood of the police car right off the bat, but Meeks was OK even with that.

"I explained to him the situation. I had already called Cost-Plus."

In lengthy documents from an internal affairs investigation that ensued, the police officers concede that they didn't know about the program, didn't believe Meeks and refused to make a call to find out if he was telling the truth.

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