Asset Forfeiture

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This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A Texas DA is on the wrong side of the bars, and so is a Kentucky jail guard. Meanwhile, crooked cops in Philly and California's East Bay have their own problems. Let's get to it:

In San Ramon, California, a former Central Costa County Narcotics Enforcement Team member was arrested May 4 in an expanding Contra Costa County drug corruption case. San Ramon Police Officer Louis Lombardi is believed to be involved in a corruption case involving the task force commander, a Contra Costa County sheriff's deputy, and a private investigator, all of whom were arrested in March. They are accused, among other things, of stealing and reselling drugs and ginning up false DUI arrests. Lombardi's specific charges include possession of stolen property, including guns, IDs, and drugs; grand theft of weapons, possession of an illegal assault rifle, and conspiracy. At last report, he was in jail with a $760,000 bond.

In Shively, Kentucky, a Bullitt County jail guard was arrested May 5 after being caught with 28 hydrocodone pills, 28 1/2 oxymorphone pills, six doses of anabolic steroids, three syringes, three needles, a gun and ammunition during a traffic stop. Eric Risen, 26, is charged with four counts of trafficking in a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia and disregarding a traffic signal, Shively police said. He was released on his own recognizance and will be arraigned in court early next week.

In Alice, Texas, the former Jim Wells and Brooks County district attorney was sentenced Friday to 180 days in jail for the criminal misuse of asset forfeiture funds. Former DA Joe Frank Garza, 64, must also serve 10 years probation and repay $2 million in funds misappropriated for his personal use. Under Texas law, prosecutors must have the okay of the county commission before spending seized cash on salary increases or the personal benefit of employees, but Garza never bothered to do that with funds seized between 2002 and 2008.

In Philadelphia, two former Philadelphia police officers were sentenced this week in a plot to rip-off drug dealers and resell their heroin. Robert Snyder, 30, got 13 years in prison, while a day earlier, James Venziale got 42 months for his role. They were two of three officers arrested last year in the scheme that also involved Snyder's wife, Cristal, and her sister's drug dealing boyfriend. Venziale got less time because he became a cooperating witness. He testified that he and Snyder got $3,000 each for robbing one dealer. The criminal cops went down in an FBI sting after word of their activities percolated up from the street.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

It's a veritable cornucopia of drug-related law enforcement corruption! We don't even know where to begin -- just jump in, but don't forget to take a shower after you're done. Let's get to it:

evidence room of opportunity
In Philadelphia, a narcotics cop accused of stealing money from people he stopped has been fired after the Philadelphia Daily News published those allegations. Officer Joseph Sulpizio, 42, had been looking at criminal charges, but Police Chief Charles Ramsey said that now wouldn't happen because the news article "blew the investigation." It was unclear how the Daily News article actually prevented the prosecution.

In San Francisco, six narcotics officers have been accused of illegal searches and perjury by the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, which has released a video it says proves its case. In two separate drug busts at apartments in the Henry Hotel in December and January, police without search warrants entered the apartments and arrested the occupants on drug sales charges. Police said they had informant tips and hot gotten consent to search from the residents. But videos captured by hallway surveillance cameras showed that an officer had used a master key to enter the apartments without the consent of the residents. Last week, a San Francisco Superior Court judge threw out one case, and prosecutors dropped the second one the next day. The public defenders are calling for an additional independent investigation of the incidents, perhaps by the state attorney general's office.

In Buffalo, New York, a Transportation Security Administration agent was arrested March 2 on charges he allowed a "drug kingpin" to pass unmolested through security at the Buffalo Airport. TSA agent Minetta Walker, 43, a behavioral detection officer, is also accused of helping other drug traffickers evade scans and searches to take cash -- but not drugs -- through the airport. She was arrested along with the "kingpin," a Buffalo man who regularly flew to Arizona with large amounts of cash that he used to purchase marijuana, which he then shipped back to Buffalo. Walker is accused of letting him travel under a false name and ushering him past security lines where he might be stopped for carrying large amounts of cash. She has pleaded not guilty to charges of running a criminal enterprise, conspiracy and intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, as well as charges of conspiring to defraud the US and aiding and abetting another to avoid security requirements.

In Dallas, the head of the Mesquite Police Department narcotics unit was arrested last Friday on charges he was ripping off cash during the execution of drug search warrants. Sgt. John David McAllister, 42, after the FBI received a tip in December that he was stealing cash. The FBI set up a sting operation in which an undercover FBI officer posed as a drug courier carrying $100,000 in cash. McAllister and his partner approached the vehicle, turned the driver over to other police, then searched the vehicle, finding the bundles of cash. Video recordings captured him taking one of the bundles and stashing it in his pants. When FBI agents counted the seized cash, it was short $2,000. McAllister is charged with theft of government property, and faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.

In Danville, California, a Contra Costa County sheriff's deputy was arrested last Friday in connection with the investigation of a state narcotics agent who allegedly stole drugs from evidence lockers for resale. Deputy Stephen Tanabe, 47, was charged with suspicion of possession and transfer of an assault rifle and conspiracy to possess and sell controlled substances. Tanabe went down as a result of investigations into the February 16 arrest of Contra Costa Central Narcotics Enforcement Team lead Christopher Butler, who was arrested along with a private investigator on 28 felony counts of theft and the possession and sale of meth, marijuana, steroids, and prescription pills. Butler, Tanabe, and the private investigator were all police officers together at the Antioch Police Department in the 1990s.

In Phoenix, a Phoenix police detective was arrested Monday after being accused of replacing Oxycontin in the department's evidence room with over-the-counter drugs. The detective, whose name has not yet been released, is believed to have tampered with 83 evidence bags and swapped-out 2,400 prescription narcotics, replacing them with OTC drugs. The detective could face charges of evidence tampering, theft and drug possession in connection with the investigation. He has been interviewed and released and has resigned from the force.

In Detroit, another Inskter police officer and a former Wayne County prosecutor have pleaded guilty in a case in which Inskter narcotics officers, Wayne County drug prosecutor Karen Plants, and Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Mary Waterstone conspired to knowingly allow perjured testimony to be heard in a cocaine trafficking case. Officer Robert McArthur admitted filing false investigative reports in the 2005 case and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect of duty. Charges of perjury and conspiracy were dropped against McArthur, who could have faced life in prison. Plants then pleaded guilty to one count of official misconduct and agreed to serve six months in jail. The former drug prosecutor copped to the plea in order to avoid trial on a conspiracy count that could have given her life in prison. Earlier, Inskter Officer Scott Rechtzigel pleaded guilty in the same case. Judge Waterstone is scheduled for trial in May. The four plotted to hide the fact that a witness in the case was in fact a snitch for the Inskster cops who had a large monetary incentive to testify as he did.

In Philadelphia, a fired Philadelphia police officer was convicted last Friday in a scheme to steal 300 grams of heroin during a fake traffic stop in his patrol car. Mark Williams, 27, was found guilty of drug and robbery charges. Williams staged the robbery of drug courier last May and split $6,000 in what he thought were proceeds from the sale of the heroin with two other officers, who have already pleaded guilty. But one of his co-conspirators was actually a DEA informant, and the $6,000 was really government bait money. Williams was convicted of conspiracy to distribute more than 100 grams of heroin, possession with intent to distribute heroin, conspiracy to commit robbery and attempted robbery. He's looking at a mandatory minimum five years on the drug counts and another five years on the robbery charges. He has been jailed pending sentencing.

In Alice, Texas, the former Jim Wells County district attorney pleaded guilty Monday to charges he misused millions in seized drug money. For six years ending in 2008, former DA Joe Frank Garza led Jim Wells County law enforcement in an aggressive scheme to pull cars over and seize forfeited property and cash. Garza spent the cash on bonuses for himself and three secretaries, as well as trips to Las Vegas for "seminars." Texas law requires that asset forfeiture expenditures be approved by the county commission, but Garza never bothered. He pleaded guilty to one count of misappropriating more than $2 million, and will likely be sentenced to six months in jail at sentencing in May. He will also have to pay $2.1 million in restitution.

Illinois Blacks More Likely to Get Prison for Drugs

An Illinois state panel found Monday that Illinois blacks convicted of low-level drug possession offenses are much more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites. According to the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission, 19% convicted of drug possession were imprisoned, while only 4% of whites were.

Joliet Prison (image via Wikimedia)
The disparity was even worse in the state's most populous jurisdiction, Cook County. While statewide, blacks were five times more likely to be imprisoned for drug possession than whites, in Cook County, the figure was eight times.

The commission was formed in 2009 to examine incarceration rates between the races. Legislation to create it was sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), who co-chairs the panel.

"It's always disappointing to know the true facts," Hunter said in remarks reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The sentencing disparity comes despite research that shows that blacks and whites nationally use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate, said Pamela Rodriguez, president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, a Chicago-based nonprofit that led the commission’s research. She cited a 2008 federal study that 10.1% of blacks and 8.2% of whites reported using illegal drugs.

Rodriguez said the disparity could be partially explained by differences in education and economic status, but that blacks were also more likely to conduct drug transactions in public spaces, where they are easily targeted by police. "Where you have greater enforcement, you have greater arrests," Rodriguez said. "Where you have greater arrests, you have greater prosecutions."

The commission called for funding alternatives to imprisonment as a way to reduce the disparity. The state has programs in place, including drug courts and first-time offender probation, but it needs new revenue to fund them adequately.

Sen. Hunter suggested that the commission would look at using part of local jurisdictions' drug forfeiture funds to pay for alternatives to imprisonment. That would be preferable to leaving them in the hands of police forces, which use them to arrest more drug offenders and seize more funds to arrest more drug offenders and seize more funds in a vicious cycle of drug law enforcement.

Springfield, IL
United States

Texas Counties $4.2 Million Drug Search and Seizures Fund Trips to Vegas

Location: 
TX
United States
In a classic example of drug prohibition money corrupting, Frank Garza, the former District Attorney of Jim Wells and Brooks Counties in Texas, has been charged with going on a $4.2 million dollar drug search and seizure forfeiture spending spree in seven years. This story draws attention to the practice of authorities and officials and the very lucrative search, seizure and forfeiture drug laws, in particular, the state of Texas. According to the Institute of Justice, due to Texas’s search and seizure forfeiture laws, Texas law enforcement agencies seized in property and currency, “nearly a quarter of a billion dollars” between 2001 and 2008.
Publication/Source: 
Death by 1000 Papercuts (US)
URL: 
http://deathby1000papercuts.com/2010/08/texas-counties-4-2-million-drug-search-and-seizures-fund-trips-to-vegas/

Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture

The Cato Institute invites you to Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture featuring Scott Bullock, Senior Attorney, Institute for Justice and Marian R. Williams, Department of Government and Justice Studies, Appalachian State University. The event features comments by Scott Burns, Executive Director, National District Attorneys Association, and it is moderated by Tim Lynch, Director, Project on Criminal Justice, Cato Institute. Under state and federal law, police departments can seize and keep property that is suspected of involvement in criminal activity. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, however, with civil forfeiture, a property owner need not be found guilty of a crime—or even charged—to permanently lose her cash, car, home, or other property. And according to a new report published by the Institute for Justice, “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” most state laws are written in such a way as to encourage police agents to pursue profit instead of seeking the neutral administration of justice. The report grades each state and the federal government on its forfeiture laws and other measures of abuse. The results are appalling: Six states earned an F and 29 states and the federal government received a grade of D. Please join us for a discussion of policing, constitutional rights, and government accountability. Luncheon to follow. Note: Cato Policy Forums and luncheons are free of charge. To register, visit www.cato.org, fax (202) 371-0841, or call (202) 789-5229 by noon, Tuesday, April 27. News media inquiries only (no registrations), please call (202) 789-5200. If you can't make it to the Cato Institute, watch this Forum live online at www.cato.org.
Date: 
Wed, 04/28/2010 - 12:00pm - 2:00pm
Location: 
1000 Massachusetts Ave., N.W.
Washington, DC 20001
United States

Asset Forfeiture: Justice Department Collaborating With State, Local Cops in "Policing for Profit," Report Says

State and local law enforcement agencies in states that direct that seized assets go into the state general fund -- instead of into the hands of the seizing agency -- are increasingly turning their booty over to the federal government in a bid to keep their hands on the loot, according to a new report from the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice. So-called "equitable sharing" between local cops and the feds nearly doubled between 2000 and 2008, from slightly more than $200 million to $400 million.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/doj_asset_forfeiture.gif
US Dept. of Justice assets forfeiture program logo -- helping state, county and local police departments evade the law
The report, Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture said that the trend toward "equitable sharing" is most pronounced in states that limit the use of proceeds from asset forfeitures. Similarly, in states where property owners are presumed innocent, law enforcement is more likely to collaborate with the feds to take advantage of looser federal asset forfeiture standards.

"These results demonstrate not only that federal equitable sharing is a loophole that state and local law enforcement use to circumvent strict state laws, but also that pursuit of profit is a significant motivator in civil forfeiture actions," the report found. "Simply put, when laws make civil forfeiture easier and more profitable, law enforcement engages in more of it."

The report also grades the 50 states on how well asset forfeiture laws protect the rights of citizens and provides an "evasion grade" measuring the degree to which state and local law enforcement bypass limits in state laws in order to keep the profits from seized assets for themselves. It was a dismal exercise, with only three states -- Maine, North Dakota, and Vermont -- receiving a combined grade of B or higher. The other 47 states all received C's or D's.

The lowest-graded states overall, with both poor laws and aggressive resort to "equitable sharing," are Georgia, Michigan, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Boycott Idaho Over Thuggish Marijuana Law Enforcement? Well, We Have to Start Somewhere

Idaho has some great scenery and some great skiing, it has the Snake River Canyon, and it has a huge knot of mountains in the middle of the state that are very appealing to those who like rugged, isolated beauty. I had intended to explore them this summer, but I've changed my mind. And this story is the reason why:
Medical Marijuana Defense Falls Flat REXBURG — The Fremont County prosecutor says a drug bust in Island Park illustrates that claiming a medical use of marijuana with a certificate from another state won't help you in Idaho. Aurora M. Hathor-Rainmenti, 35 , of Garberville, Calif., was arrested Friday after she was stopped for speeding near Mack's Inn. Fremont County deputies found a baggy containing marijuana in her car with the help of a drug dog. Hathor-Rainmenti was charged with one count of possession of marijuana and two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia, all misdemeanors. Fremont County Prosecutor Joette Lookabaugh said Hathor-Rainmenti said she had a certificate from the state of California allowing for medical use of marijuana. "We want the public to know that medical marijuana certificates, even if they're from surrounding states, are not honored in Idaho," Lookabaugh said.
Okay, I understand this. Idaho is under no obligation to honor a medical marijuana card from a different state. Medical marijuana users be forewarned: If you're headed for benighted redneck country, don't expect your card to protect you. There is, however, no suggestion that Hathor-Rainmenti is anything other than a legitimate medical marijuana patient. Still, the local prosecutor takes the opportunity to pile on the charges: Not only does she get a pot possession charge, she also gets two paraphernalia charges (did she have two rolling papers, or what?). Absolutely typical, of course, and absolutely disgusting. Just another way for prosecutors to stack the deck. And not limited to Idaho. Similarly, a judge in Idaho, if he had an ounce of compassion in his body, could take her medical marijuana patient status into account during sentencing. There is no sign he did that:
On Monday Hathor-Rainmenti pleaded guilty to the possession charge and one of the possession of paraphernalia charges. The other paraphernalia charge was dropped. She was sentenced to five days in jail, with 115 days at the discretion of the court along with an $800 fine.
Nice. Throwing a patient in jail for a victimless crime—and rip her off for $800. Remember, she was not charged with drugged driving—and you better believe she would have been had there been the least suggestion she was impaired. Okay, the sentence was ugly and reprehensible, but still nothing unusual in the fascistoid heartland. But here's the kicker; here's what's got me thinking boycott:
In addition, there is a civil forfeiture under way on the borrowed car Hathor-Rainmenti was driving, as well as on the $514 in cash that was confiscated during the arrest.
Say what?!?! Asset forfeiture laws are supposed to be directed at people getting rich from selling drugs. They're problematic enough in that regard, since they create an incentive for cops to trawl for cash, distorting law enforcement priorities in the constant search for the next big score—with the loot typically used to pay for more cops and more drug dogs to find more cash to seize to pay for more cops and more drug dogs and…In short, they are little more than a form of institutionalized, legalized corruption. But Hathor-Rainmenti only had a bag of weed. She was not charged with drug distribution. And the state of Idaho is going to steal her car and every penny she had on her? This is nothing but robbery under color of law. This is the criminal justice system as organized thuggery. The thieving state of Idaho can go to hell. I am sick to death of this sort of crap. It happens all the time, and not just in Idaho. But we have to start somewhere, and that's why I'm suggesting that perhaps a boycott is in order. Idaho is a relatively small state in terms of population, and it is highly dependent on tourism. In other words, it's vulnerable. I am aware that boycotts are a blunt instrument that may not directly harm the people they are aimed at—the cops who make the busts, the prosecutors who try to hammer good people down, the judges who routinely impose such obscene sentences, the politicians who write the laws. But if the ski resorts in Sun Valley or the river guides and hotel owners along the Snake River Valley start seeing cancellations, perhaps they will be motivated to start putting some money into campaigns to end this evil. To be honest, I'm getting frustrated with playing games with state legislatures and I'm thinking it's time for some creative direct actions. We can spend years at the statehouse only to win a piddling decriminalization bill. Whoopee! Now you can only steal my stash and a few hundred of my hard-earned dollars instead of stealing my stash and my money and giving me a criminal record and some jail time. That is progress of a sort, but not nearly enough. Ditto with medical marijuana. Why is it that it seems like every new medical marijuana law is more restrictive than the last? Pretty soon we're going to end up with a medical marijuana law somewhere where you have to be dead already to qualify. So…what about an organized boycott of Idaho, for starters? Would medical marijuana defense groups like Americans for Safe Access get on board with that? Why or why not? What about NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project? Or the Drug Policy Alliance? Just the announcement of a boycott ought to start a real ruckus among the good burghers of Boise. There are 20 million or so pot smokers in the US, and they have friends and families. We are talking about tens of millions of people who could potentially participate. It could even have a real economic impact, and if that's what it takes to beat some sense into these yahoos, so be it. Individuals could do their part by writing letters to the state and local chambers of commerce, to the state tourism bureau, and to state newspapers explaining why they are going elsewhere this year. Reservations could be made and then canceled. Let 'em feel the pain. As I've said, I'm getting really tired of progress by the millimeter. I'm open to some creative tactics. A directed boycott is one of them. Here's another one: The drug defense bar grows rich defending pot people. How about after charging us $5,000 to show up in court and cop a guilty plea and $15,000 to pursue an appeal on constitutional grounds a few hundred times, you give back to the community you grow rich off of? How about a group of you picking a particular egregious locality and pro bono defending every drug case like you meant it? I mean filing motions, going to trial, no plea bargains, demanding jury trials, the works. You could probably freeze the system in a few weeks. Yeah, I know there are issues, but we could work them out. Sure, things like boycotts and forcing the criminal justice system are messy and difficult. But in the meantime, the wheels of injustice keep grinding away, chewing up our people in the process. Anybody got any better ideas? Do we begin with boycotting Idaho? Count me in.
Location: 
ID
United States

Drug Testing: Missouri Bill to Test Welfare Recipients Passes House, But Faces Battle in Senate

The Missouri House Thursday passed a bill that would require welfare recipients to undergo drug testing upon "reasonable suspicion" they used drugs. But the Senate version of that bill, SB 607, is under sustained attack by Senate Democrats, who are filibustering it this week.

Under the bills, all work-eligible adults who received cash payments through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program would be drug tested if a caseworker has "reasonable suspicion" they are using drugs. Those who test positive would become temporarily ineligible for cash assistance, but their children could continue to receive benefits through a third party.

TANF is a federal program designed to help poverty-stricken parents provide for their children. In Missouri, more than 112,000 people get cash assistance through the program. The average family on the program gets $292 a month.

A legislative staff fiscal analysis of the Senate bill put the annual cost to the state at more than $5 million next year, and more than $6 million in coming years. Those figures represent the cost of drug testing an estimated 90,000 TANF recipients or new applicants each year and the cost of providing additional drug treatment services to deal with those who test positive.

But in debate this week, Senate Democrats said the fiscal analysis didn't take into account the cost of possibly having to care for children whose parents are denied benefits. "The people who are the complete, total innocent victims in this are the kids," said Sen. Victor Callahan (D-Independence), the Senate minority leader. "Let's act like a responsible family," he said. "What about our brother's kids?"

Republicans said the bill just made good sense. "It seems to prevent the state of Missouri from becoming an enabler to addiction," said Sen. Gary Nodler (R-Joplin).

Will the Senate filibuster succeed? Stay tuned.

Africa: Liberia Institutes Draconian New Drug Sentences

The West African nation of Liberia, still struggling to emerge from years of bloody civil war, is now turning its attention to the war on drugs. Voice of America reported Wednesday that Liberian lawmakers have approved tough new anti-drug measures aimed not only at South American and Nigerian drug traffickers, but also at the country's own marijuana farmers.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/liberiamap.jpg
Liberia
Under the old law, drug trafficking offenses typically earned between five and 10 years in prison, but now the minimum sentence has quintupled. "If you are arrested and sent to court and convicted, you could be sentenced to jail for not less than 25 years and not more than 60 years," James Jelah, head of the Liberian DEA, told VOA.

Under the new law, drug offenders will no longer be eligible for bail while awaiting trial. Police and prosecutors have also been granted new asset forfeiture powers.

The hard line comes as Liberia and other weak West African nations grapple with cocaine trafficking. The poorly policed countries provide an enticing stopover point for South American loads on their way to the European market.

But like neighboring countries, Liberia also has a substantial -- and militant -- marijuana farming population. "The DEA is trying to uproot the marijuana farms," Jelah said. "And as a result, they were attacked by the townspeople. They put a blockade. They attacked them. Some shot single-barrel guns in the air. People came with machetes and sticks and they started beating up the DEA men. These guys had to jump in the bush."

In a country with 80% unemployment, marijuana production is a lucrative economic activity. So is the retail drug trade. One young Liberian told VOA the drug trade wasn't going away no matter what the government did.

"I sell it to foreigners, and I also sell it to Liberians," he said. "This is a money-making business. I do not care how much the government can do, this is our business. This is how we survive. So we cannot just do without drugs."

But the Liberian government is reading from the US drug war playbook.

Asset Forfeiture: Texas DA Seeks to Use Seized Funds to Defend Herself in Lawsuit Over Unlawful Seizure of Same Funds

The Texas district attorney accused of participating in an egregious asset forfeiture scheme in the East Texas town of Tenaha now wants to use the very cash seized to pay for her legal defense in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by victims of the practice. The ACLU of Texas, which, along with the national ACLU, is representing the plaintiffs in the case, filed a brief last Friday with the Texas Attorney General's office seeking to block her from doing so.

Lynda Russell is the district attorney in Shelby County, where Tenaha is located. She is accused of participating in a scheme where Tenaha police pulled over mostly African-American motorists without cause, asked them if they were carrying cash, and if they were, threaten them with being immediately jailed for money laundering or other serious crimes unless they signed over their money to authorities.

Representing a number of victims, attorneys from the ACLU of Texas and the ACLU Racial Justice Project filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in June 2008. According to the suit, more than 140 people, almost all of whom were African-American, turned over their assets to police without cause and under duress between June 2006 and June 2008. If a federal judge agrees that assets were in fact illegally seized, they should be returned to their rightful owners, whose civil rights were violated.

In one case, a mixed race couple, Jennifer Boatwright and Ronald Henderson, were stopped by a Tenaha police officer in April 2007. According to the lawsuit, they were stopped without cause, detained for some time without cause, and asked if they were carrying any cash. When they admitted they had slightly more than $6,000, a district attorney's investigator then seized it, threatening them with arrest for money laundering and the loss of their children if they refused to sign off. There was never any evidence they had committed a crime, and they were never charged with a crime.

The town mayor, the DA, the DA's investigator, the town marshal, and a town constable are all named in the lawsuit. While they claim to have acted legally under Texas asset forfeiture law, the lawsuit argues that "although they were taken under color of state law, their actions constitute abuse of authority." The suit argues that the racially discriminatory pattern of stops and searches violated both the Fourth Amendment proscription of warrantless searches and the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause.

While either the county or the state would normally be expected to pony up for the DA's legal expenses for a lawsuit filed as a result of her performance of her duties, neither has done so. That's why Russell -- with a tin ear for irony -- requested that she be allowed to use the allegedly illegally seized money stolen from motorists. She has asked the state attorney general's office for an opinion on whether using the funds for her defense violates the state's asset forfeiture law.

"It would be completely inappropriate for the district attorney to use assets which are the very subject of litigation charging her with participating in allegedly illegal activity to defend herself against these charges," said Lisa Graybill, legal director at the ACLU of Texas. "Texas has a long history of having its law enforcement officials unconstitutionally target racial minorities in the flawed and failed war on drugs and it is of paramount importance that those officials be held accountable."

"The government must account for the misconduct of officials who operate in its name," said Vanita Gupta, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, who represented African-American residents of Tulia, TX in high-profile litigation challenging their wrongful convictions on drug charges. "The state of Texas has seen egregious examples of racial profiling that result from poor oversight of criminal justice officials."

The ACLU of Texas is using the Tenaha case to push for asset forfeiture reform in the Lone Star State. One such bill stalled in the state legislature this year. "The misuse of asset forfeiture laws by local officials is exacerbated by inadequate oversight," said Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the group. "The legislature must squarely address these reported civil rights violations via reform of forfeiture laws that strengthen protection against unconstitutional conduct and racial profiling."

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