Did surveillance go over the line?

May 13, 2008 9:47:19 PM PDT
There are new developments in an exclusive investigation we first brought you Monday at 10pm -- secret surveillance against two brothers who sued the Harris County Sheriff's Department and won over a million dollars. Now, we've learned a federal judge will be asked to investigate.

The Harris County Sheriff's Department admits it put the Ibarra brothers under secret surveillance after the brothers filed a civil suit against the department.

Even after millions have already been paid, Harris County may find itself back in federal court. Last time, Erik and Sean Ibarra claimed sheriff's deputies roughed them up because of a videotape. This time, it might be because they were secretly watched.

"This is an army of oppression," said attorney Lloyd Kelley.

Kelley represents the brothers. He plans to go back to court to ask a judge to monitor the sheriff's office for civil rights violations.

"This all sounds like we're in Latin America, like we're talking about Argentina or Peru, or something like that," said Kelley. "It's a shame we're talking about the United States of America."

On Monday, we told you about how a secret squad followed the Ibarras in the midst of their civil lawsuit against the sheriff's office, the DA's office and the county.

According to a sheriff's department spokesperson, it was authorized by Major Juan Jorge to obtain background information. It was done without the county attorney's knowledge and it's not uncommon.

"It's something that we can do. It's something we do on occasion, sometimes at the request of the county attorney's office," said Captain John Martin with the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

In this political season, the county attorney, county judge and sheriff declined our requests for an interview. But Tommy Thomas' opponent did not.

"These people were being investigated when they were not suspects," said Adrian Garcia. "This smacks of intimidation of plaintiffs the sheriff didn't like. They weren't suspects. He just didn't like them because they filed a lawsuit."

The Harris County attorney's office has decided that the sheriff's office did nothing illegal when investigators followed the Ibarra brothers. The DA's office will neither confirm or deny an investigation into this matter.

Did the surveillance put anyone at risk?

The Harris County Sheriff's Department says its investigation of Erik and Sean Ibarra did not take resources away from other public safety duties.

They say they used one or two investigators for 5 to 6 hours over the course of three days. Despite having dozens of unsolved crimes that remain on the sheriff's office's books, a spokesperson says this surveillance did not take away from other investigations.

The Ibarra brothers had no idea that the sheriff's office was watching them in the days leading up to their civil trial. The department admits it spent three days off and on, following them, trying to obtain background information on them to use against them in the Ibarras' civil rights trial against Sheriff Tommy Thomas and his department.

"It's the type of violation that needs to get stopped," said KTRK legal analyst Joel Androphy.

Androphy says unless the sheriff's department had some reason to believe the brothers were doing something illegal, Thomas had no business using detectives paid by taxpayers to spy on the brothers.

"That type of attitude goes back to eastern Europe when police forces controlled society and told people what to do and when to do it. That has no place here in America," he said.

The sheriff's office admits it was looking for information on the Ibarra brothers. Androphy says it's important to note, though, what a reasonable person might conclude about such surveillance, that it could be retaliation or intimidation for filing the lawsuit in the first place.

"There was nothing that would be intimidating or invoke fear in someone because of those activities," said Capt. Martin.

The sheriff's office insists further that no detectives was taken away from higher priority duties because of this investigation, though a spokesman tells us those who tailed the Ibarras often are used as supplemental detectives on murder and rape cases.

South Texas College of Law Professor Adam Gershowitz insists still that the sheriff's department could have crossed the line here, investigating something not for criminal prosecution.

"They're not supposed to use public resources for their own benefit or the benefit of the department to try to save themselves money or win litigation," he said.

We should note that the sheriff's office tells us if you sue them, they might spy on you, too, paying for it with your tax dollars.

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