by James Gill
Described by The Progressive as “the strangest, most brazen activist America has seen in decades, Barry Cooper was one of the top U.S. narcotics officers until he reconsidered and became an anti-drug-war authority. His story has garnered coverage in such diverse outlets as Fox News, NPR, CNN, MSNBC and The Texas Observer. He is a client of the Law Office of James Gill.
Sometime in early 2004 I was flipping through the latest issue of Playboy and happened to come across a news blurb on a man by the name of Barry Cooper. I had never heard of him nor could I have ever expected that one day he would become my client and good friend.
The article shouted, “Former super cop flips sides and tells all his secrets!” It was an immediate attention-getter. I had just recently passed the bar exam and was full of vigor to change our country’s draconian drug laws. Just the year before I had written my “substantial writing component” on the why drugs should be legalized in the United States. A substantial writing component is similar to a doctoral thesis that professors and other highly-accredited professions require.
At the time, I didn’t order the “Never Get Busted” video that Barry had just produced but I talked about it for about a year to friends, colleagues and anyone that would listen. I read articles about people transporting drugs in California that had the video in the car’s DVD player when they were pulled over. Barry’s name and the “Never Get Busted” video remained in the collective unconscious for the next year until I was hired on the drug case that would eventually cause the intersection of our lives.
A pretty 27-year-old woman from a small Texas town was arrested on felony possession of methamphetamines, more commonly known as meth. This also occurred in Williamson County, Texas, considered by most to be the strictest county in the State of Texas and notorious for its tough-on-crime approach, especially with drug possession cases. Eventually, the state turned over a video of the encounter with the defendant.
What I was saw on that tape was one of the most egregious violations of a person’s rights that I had ever seen in my legal career. When my client refused to allow the officer to search her vehicle they brought out a drug dog. I should also mention that the sound had been removed from the video, which raises multiple questions and the specter of an organized pattern of behavior that was condoned by the police department and the Williamson County DAs office at the time. After the dog made four passes around the car without reacting to or “hitting” on anything, you can clearly see officer one as he walked up to officer two and put his hands up in a motion that is best described as “What do we do now, since the dog didn’t smell anything?”
You know what he did next. He coyly pulled a toy out of his pocket, ran the dog over to the vehicle, showed the dog the toy, and the dog barked in excitement at the toy. Yep, you guessed it — the officer now claimed he had probable cause to search the vehicle due the to drug dog “hitting” on the driver’s door. (Drugs were eventually found in the car but not in the driver’s door. )
I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. The officer blatantly and on camera caused his dog to achieve the result he wanted. I didn’t know exactly what to do at this time. I just knew it was wrong. Very wrong.
Possession of a Controlled Substance can be a very serious crime in Texas. Simply put, the more you have the more trouble you are in. My client was facing a minimum of six months in a state jail facility and up to two years behind bars. Additionally, on this type of case you are not eligible to earn “good time” credit. If she were convicted she would serve every single day of the sentence given by the court.
As fate would have it, a colleague of mine ran into Barry Cooper just about this time at an ACLU meeting in Austin. They got to talking, exchanged phone numbers and Barry gave my colleague a free copy of his “Never Get Busted” video. I couldn’t believe the coincidence and the next day after work I went to my colleague’s house to watch the video. About an hour into the video Barry explains how he used to train drug dogs for the Permian Basin drug task force and multiple other police agencies. He then goes on to explain how to make a dog “false alert” and gives a demonstration. And there it was right there on his video, explaining how cops make dogs falsely alert to illegally gain entry into a citizen’s vehicle.
The next day I called Barry, introduced myself and explained that I wanted to discuss a drug case with him. My client ended up hiring Barry as an expert witness on her case.
I’ll admit I didn’t quite know what to expect the first time I met Barry. Obviously I knew what he looked like from his videos but I doubted he would be the same in real life.
I was right and I was wrong. He turned out to be very genuine, just like in his videos, but he was much more engaging and passionate in real life. He had a presence that was powerful yet I felt completely at ease with him. We discussed many topics that evening other than the case we were fighting, and I knew right then I had found not only the right guy to hire for the case, but also a modern-day freedom fighter who wasn’t scared to stand up for people’s rights.
As for the Williamson County dog toy case, the state eventually relented after a series of hard-fought court battles. With Barry’s help, my client was spared from prison. To this day he claims it’s the most obvious example of a false alert he has seen and it’s still on his website as the example of what to look for.
Barry and I stayed in touch regularly over the next months, meeting for a beer or two occasionally, until the next the big idea hit. Then the wild ride really started.
Barry came up with the idea of a reality TV show called Kop Busters. The premise was simple, but the legal issues were complex. At this time there was no real precedent for private citizens investigating the police. Sure, agencies exist to do exactly that, but are citizen’s rights protected with regard to conducting their own investigations?
Barry carried out a handful of Kop Buster operations. Two of them were stings of the crooked cops who had used the dog toy trick to illegally search my client’s car, and these were the operations that gave the Williamson County police the dubious pretext to make Barry’s life a living hell.
The plan to catch the police was simple in theory: find out when the specific officers’ shifts were and carry out the sting during that time. The operation consisted of placing a fake drug ledger, fake drug paraphernalia and real money into a bag. They would leave the bag at a carwash like it had been forgotten or abandoned. Barry’s team would then call in a suspicious bag report to 311. If the officer who responded pocketed the money and threw out the bag and fake items, the cop would be committing the felony of tampering with evidence and additionally be committing theft. Although Barry’s team knew the drug ledger and paraphernalia to be fake, the officer responding to the call would have no way of knowing it.
Williamson County became aware Barry was investigating them. When they received the second suspicious bag report from Barry’s team, they put into action a plan of their own. They figured if the situation “created an emergency” Barry would be committing the crime of filing a false police report.
The officers arrived to investigate the 311 call. Instead of pocketing the cash, though, the officers actually shot the bag. Later their report claimed that the bag created a potential emergency because it was near school grounds and could have been a bomb. However, as documented by Barry’s video camera, one of the cops opened it up first and looked inside, and then closed it again, having seen there was nothing but cash and the fake drug materials in it.
As a result of this attempted sting, the cops pushed hard to have Barry prosecuted and convicted. They levied him with trumped-up charges of filing a false report. Included in the charges was an element of “causing an emergency,” because the “dangerous” nature of the bag ostensibly constituted an emergency and necessitated the discharge of a firearm.
Instead of issuing a warrant, as is common practice for misdemeanor offenses, the officers obtained a search warrant and raided Barry’s house, scaring his family half to death all the while mocking and taunting them. Barry’s wife, Candi, called me while the cops were arresting Barry and searching their house. I immediately dropped what I was doing and met Barry at the jail and Candi at the bonds company to assist.
Barry was released later that day, but the war had just begun. To further leverage their case against Barry, the state filed additional charges of conducting an investigation without a private investigator’s license. Media and journalists are exceptions to this charge, and Barry’s investigative program Kop Busters should have qualified him for this exception, but that didn’t prevent Williamson County from arresting him again.
Then all hell broke lose. Candi’s ex-husband was leaked some photos from the raid. Every computer, camera, CD, disk drive, and electronic device was taken in the raid. And that wasn’t all that they targeted. Candi and her ex had a special-needs child who lived mostly with Candi. The leaked photos gave her ex the pretext to jeopardize that relationship.
One of the photos showed their family and friends hanging out in the kitchen, including Zack, who was a minor. In the background you could visibily identify a pipe commonly used to smoke marijuana. The irony is the “pipe” was a prop used by Barry in his videos and on his website. It had never been used to smoke marijuana. One officer even went so far as to suggest the child looked high in a photo. Later, we verified that all the drug tests Child Protective Services performed on Zack came up negative for all substances.
With the unheard assistance of law enforcement and a illegal trial (verified by the court of appeals), a child modification trial was held in Jefferson County, some five hours from Austin. We lost that trial and the child Barry and Candi loved and had raised was torn from the them. The weeks that followed were incredibly sad and frustrating as every legal door we attempted to navigate through was shut in our faces. So the Cooper family found themselves fighting a two-front war. The State of Texas was trying to put Barry in jail and The State of Texas was trying to take away his family. History has shown this is an overwhelming hurdle.
After literally hundreds of hours of research, court appearances and hearings I resolved Barry’s cases in Williamson County. Barry had one charge dismissed and for the other he only paid a small fine.
Then came a small break in the family case. Candi’s ex was involved in an alleged bar fight and we filed for an emergency protective order when the child was visiting here in Austin. Once we shifted the fight back to Travis County we started gaining some traction but not without considerable problems and some burning bridges on the way.
After wrangling in court for years Barry and Candi had had enough. Their family had suffered greatly and they simply wanted to live in peace. They left Texas and America for good, relocating their family to South America. Risking federal kidnapping charges to save his family, Barry left everything he had built and fought for in this country.
Things have changed somewhat in Williamson County since Barry’s case. Due to the hard work of myself and few other warrior attorneys their policies have softened a bit in recent years on misdemeanor drug possession cases. Recently, The Michael Morton Act was signed into law as the result of a former assistant-district attorney-turned-judge who hid evidence in a murder case. The investigation into the judge is the first time in the history of the state of Texas that an assistant district attorney received jail time for hiding evidence.
After all those hours planning and fighting with Barry and his family, we have become close. I still keep in touch with him and he keeps me up to date with the latest in his life. Earlier this year I flew down to a location I cannot legally disclose and reunited with Barry. It was the first time since he fled the illegal persecution of U.S. law enforcement that I had seen him. It was a joyous occasion to see him and his family again. When the front door opened, Zak, now eleven, ran up and enveloped me in the biggest hug he could summon. He kept saying, “Thank you, thank you.” It was a very special time for all of us.
In 2012, Barry contributed to the well-reviewed documentary “How to Make Money Selling Drugs” alongside well-known names like 50 Cent, Eminem, Woody Harrelson and Susan Sarandon. The film is an incisive look at the injustices and inequities of the drug war. And currently there is full-length motion picture in the works about Barry’s life with a focus on his legal struggles.
I have read the script and have very high expectations for the success of the film. In this life, you don’t come across many characters as distinctive or as colorful as Barry Cooper.
Photo by Stephen C. Webster/The Progressive.