Police in small town Tenaha, Texas, near the Louisiana line, have found a way of turning law enforcement into a lucrative racket. According to a recently filed federal lawsuit, police there routinely stopped passing motorists -- the vast majority of them black -- and threatened them with felony arrests on charges such as money laundering unless they agreed to sign over their property on the spot.
The waiver form that the couple signed giving up their rights is particularly chilling. "We agree that this case may be taken up and considered by the Court without further notice to us during this proceeding. In exchange for this agreement, no criminal charges shall be filed on either of us as a result of this case, and our children shall not be turned over to CPS."
Officials in Tenaha, which sits on a heavily traveled highway between Houston and popular gambling destinations in Louisiana, said they were fighting drug trafficking and were operating in accord with state asset forfeiture law, which allows local police agencies to keep drug money and other goods used in the commission of a crime.
"We try to enforce the law here," said George Bowers, mayor of the town of 1,046 residents, where boarded-up businesses outnumber open ones and City Hall sports a broken window. "We're not doing this to raise money. That's all I'm going to say at this point," he told the Tribune.
But civil rights attorneys said what Tenaha was doing amounted to highway robbery and filed a federal class action law suit to halt the practice. Tenaha officials "have developed an illegal 'stop and seize' practice of targeting, stopping, detaining, searching and often seizing property from apparently non-white citizens and those traveling with non-white citizens," according to the lawsuit, which was filed in US District Court in the Eastern District of Texas.
One of the attorneys involved, David Guillory of Nacogdoches, told the Tribune he combed through county court records and found nearly 200 cases where Tenaha police had seized cash and property from motorists. In only 50 of those cases were drug charges filed. But that didn't stop police from seizing cash, jewelry, cell phones, and even cars from motorists not found with contraband or charged with any crime.
The practice was so routine in Tenaha that Guillory was able to find pre-signed and pre-notarized police affidavits, lacking only the description of the "contraband" to be seized.
"The whole thing is disproportionately targeted toward minorities, particularly African-Americans," Guillory said. "None of these people have been charged with a crime, none were engaged in anything that looked criminal. The sole factor is that they had something that looked valuable."
It's not just Tenaha, and it's not just blacks. Hispanics in Texas allege they are the victims of discriminatory highway stops and seizures, too. The practice is especially prevalent on the handful of US highways heading south from the I-10 corridor toward Mexico.
One prominent state legislator, Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said police across the state are increasingly relying on seizures to fund their operating budgets. "If used properly, it's a good law-enforcement tool to see that crime doesn't pay," said Whitmire. "But in this instance, where people are being pulled over and their property is taken with no charges filed and no convictions, I think that's theft."
Whitmire said the problem extends beyond Tenaha, and he's going to do something about it. On Monday, he filed a bill that would require police to go before a judge before attempting to seize property under the asset forfeiture laws. Ultimately, he said, he is looking for a law that allows police to seize property only after a suspect is charged and convicted in court.
"The law has gotten away from what was intended, which was to take the profits of a bad guy's crime spree and use it for additional crime-fighting," Whitmire said. "Now it's largely being used to pay police salaries -- and it's being abused because you don't even have to be a bad guy to lose your property."