Privacy SOS

Austin detective infiltrated Occupy movement, allegedly provided activists with “criminal instruments”

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A troubling thing happened in Austin, Texas. Activists say an undercover police officer who had integrated himself into their Occupy movement provided them with lock boxes that they used during a civil disobedience action — and have served as the rationale for state felony charges that could put them behind bars for two years if convicted.

On December 12th, seven activists locked themselves together at the main entrance to the port of Houston, in solidarity with the port shutdown action in Oakland and in coordination with activists in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. The seven were arrested and charged with felonies under state law: Unlawful use of a criminal instrument.

The judge who first heard their charges threw them out of court in December 2011 citing lack of probable cause. In other words, she didn’t think that the lock boxes were criminal instruments. 

Prosecutors didn’t give up so easily, however, and convened a grand jury. The Houston seven were indicted once again. One of the indicted 7, Austin based activist Ronnie Garza, writes:

Months later, we received a tipoff about a person we knew at protests as "Butch"… eventually we found that Butch was actually an APD [Austin Police Department] Narcotics Detective named Shannon G. Dowell.  It turns out that Dowell got the materials for, assembled and dropped off the lock boxes with protesters to use in Houston.

From the Austin Chronicle:

According to an affidavit by David Cortez, head of Occupy Austin's bank actions committee, it was Dowell who encouraged the activists to don the lockboxes. "He was a fairly quiet individual who never contributed much to our meetings," Cortez recalled of Dowell, "but consistently pulled myself and others aside individually in order to express his frustration with debate and eagerness for more aggressive and provocative actions than our standard peaceful & nonviolent ones," reads the affidavit. According to the affidavit of fellow OA member Yatzel Sabat, possible acts of civil disobedience, "including trespassing, sit-ins or obstruction of passage ways" had been discussed at meetings but it was Butch (Dowell) who was involved in the initial discussion of using lockboxes, and it was he who "acted more excited about the idea," reads the affidavit. "He volunteered to gather the piping and other materials by purchasing it at Lowe's and delivering it back to the members of the group that were planning to go to Houston for the demonstration," she continued. "Butch persuaded us to use these arm tubes."

Upon learning of the undercover’s identity and alleged securing of the lock boxes, the activists contacted an attorney with the local National Lawyers Guild, Greg Gladden. Former president of the ACLU of Texas, Gladden said "The police knew the kids could be charged with the felony" for using the lock boxes, "but the kids didn't know [that]."

The lock boxes are a crucial issue in this case because the "use of a criminal instrument" charge is a felony that potentially carries years in prison. If the criminal instrument charge doesn't stick, the charges are misdemeanors punishable by mere months in jail, if that.

Gladden subpoenaed Detective Dowell to appear in court and to bring all relevant materials with him. Dowell showed up and affirmed under oath that he, along with two other undercover officers, had indeed worked to infiltrate the activist group. But the detective brought “next to nothing” to court with him, Garza says, and claimed that he had deleted all emails pertaining to his work as an undercover 'activist' from his APD account. The judge has ordered the Austin PD to recover the emails, and Dowell’s mobile phone company to provide any related text messages to the court. 

A hearing in the case is coming up on September 5, 2012. The presiding judge has warned the police department that the case will be dismissed unless the other two undercover officers are named.

Will Dowell admit to having secured and delivered the lock boxes to activists? If so, will the attorneys representing the Houston Seven attempt an entrapment defense?

Stay tuned for more information about this case as it unfolds.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.