If you picked up a newspaper, watched the news, or logged on to Wise County on the Web this week, you have undoubtedly become aware of the arrests of various individuals by the FBI in what is alleged to be some type of bombing plot. If the media is correct, those individuals intended to create a diversion by bombing the Mitchell Energy Plant and then robbing an armored car in Chico. (Do you recall the race track robbery in the movie The Getaway?). What made this incident newsworthy, in my opinion, was the involvement of the federal government. If it had been an arrest made by the Wise County Sheriff's Office or a local police department, it probably would have been mentioned in the Fort Worth Star Telegram and maybe the Dallas Morning News, but I question whether it would have reached, as it did, ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, or the Associated Press Wire.
Although much of the public is unaware of it, there are dramatic differences between "state" and "federal" law enforcement. A crime is a state offense if it violates the Texas Penal Code, which has been enacted by elected state representatives. The crime is investigated either by the elected Sheriff or a local police department, the latter which is under the supervision of the elected city council and mayor. If an arrest can be made, the case is referred to an elected district or county attorney for prosecution in a court which is presided over by an elected district or county judge. The suspect can then only be convicted if he voluntarily pleads guilty or is found guilty either by the elected judge or a jury of composed of citizens who live in the county where the offense took place. If the defendant wishes to appeal his conviction, he does so to a State Appellate Court of elected judges, and the even higher to the elected members of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Federal prosecutions are much different. Those law enforcement officials do not look for violations of the Texas Penal Code but instead look for violations, in general, of Title 18 of the United States Code which has been enacted by Congress in Washington D.C. The arrest for the federal crime will be made, typically, by those employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The director of each of those agencies is appointed by the President of the United States instead of via an election process. After the arrest, the case will be referred to an appointed United States Attorney in a "region" (Wise County offenses are referred to Fort Worth region of the Northern District of Texas). Once convicted, his appeal is heard by judges who have been appointed to sit on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans, and then higher to the appointed members of the United States Supreme Court.
In my opinion, local control of law enforcement is very important. Since those in charge in the enforcement of our State laws are primarily elected at every step, they are more likely to be responsive to public concerns. If you pick up the telephone right now and try to call the Wise County Sheriff, I'll bet you will be able to reach him. Try doing that with the director of the FBI. Along those lines, you may see our state district judge at Mattie's in Decatur eating catfish, but that locale is probably not frequented by federal judges.
So what's the point, you ask? It is a simple one. The public needs to be aware of the differences between federal and state law enforcement. Don't lump them together. I'll readily admit that as district attorney, I had no prior notice whatsoever of the investigation or arrest of the bombing suspects. If my information is correct, only one individual in state law enforcement was informed of the plan by the federal government. I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong because confidentiality is critical in criminal investigations. Nevertheless, when the arrests occurred with all the fanfare on the main thoroughfare of Bridgeport, Texas, last week, it should be noted that it was not master minded by those you go to church with or see when you drop off your kids for school.
I'm not even sure they ate lunch at Matties that day.
Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.