Jack Queen, 21 April 2021
Vanita Gupta was fresh out of law school when she heard about what happened in Tulia, Texas. Two years earlier, in 1999, nearly half of the town’s adult Black population was rounded up in a drug sting on the word of a single undercover cop, accused of selling him small amounts of cocaine. Several convictions swiftly followed, accompanied by sentences of up to 361 years. The remaining defendants, 43 of whom were people of color, started pleading guilty.
Gupta, weeks into a job at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, sensed something was amiss. She flew down to Texas, where families shared the humiliation of seeing loved ones marched through the streets handcuffed and half-clothed, with a local newspaper later declaring, “Tulia’s Streets Cleared of Garbage.” Documents in the Swisher County courthouse told a remarkable story as well. Gupta, then 26, stuffed a suitcase full of copies and flew back to New York to pitch her bosses.
Tulia would later be described by activist groups as “ground zero” of the Drug War, a perfect storm of structural racism and police misconduct fueled by federal grant money. Gupta and a team of lawyers from the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union and private practice eventually secured the release of all the defendants and led a judge to conclude the undercover cop behind the sting was the most “devious” witness he had encountered in 25 years on the bench. Gupta and her colleagues also secured a $6 million civil settlement and invited fresh scrutiny of federally funded drug task forces like the one behind the Tulia sting.
Adam Levin, a Hogan Lovells partner who worked on the Tulia controversy pro bono, described Gupta as the “fulcrum” of the case. The arrests had initially drawn scattered media attention and resistance from local attorneys, but the involvement of Gupta and public interest groups upped the ante, Levin said.
“It wasn’t just the litigation,” Levin told Law360. “It was dealing with the media, dealing with clients, dealing with the prosecutors and bringing it all together with public interest and policy groups. She is a coalition builder.”