Asset Forfeiture: Highway Robbery in Texas

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.

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teaching evil: US Dept. of Justice assets forfeiture program logo
More than 140 people accepted that Hobson's choice between June 2006 and June 2008, according to court records cited by the Chicago Tribune, which ran a lengthy article on the practice this week. Among them was a black grandmother who handed over $4,000 in cash and an interracial couple from Houston who handed over $6,000 in cash after police threatened to arrest them and send their children to foster care. Neither the couple nor the grandmother were charged with any crime.

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."

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Seizure Travesty

Why any property seizure that is not relevant to a criminal conviction is constitutionally legal boggles my mind. Seizing property without due process is criminal in itself and those that do this should be prosecuted as robbers and thieves. More and more our law enforcement is resembling that of a 3rd world nation..

STOPPED FOR NOT BEING WHITE

I WAS SOOOOOO SURPRISED TO SEE THAT FINALLY SOME JUSTICE MIGHT BE SERVED IN TENAHA. LAST YEAR ALONE ME AND MY HUSBAND WERE STOPPED TWICE. BOTH TIMES OUR RENTALS WERE TORN APART, MY HUSBAND HAD TO TAKE OFF HIS SHOES, WE WERE DETAINED FOR AT LEAST AN HOUR AND NO TICKET WAS EVER GIVEN. THE REASON THEY SAID THEY STOPPED US WAS FOR SPEEDING. I HAD JUST PULLED OUT FROM A RED LIGHT. I WAS VERY GLAD TO SEE THAT GOD KNOWS AND SEES ALL.
THANKS!

This is action is not called far

I am facing a contraband forfiture hearing in Oklahoma due to the fact I was talking to a friend after I came out of a grocery store. The charges that they tried to charge me and my friends with where dismissed at the request of the state, but to date they still haven't dropped the civil case. If thier is anyone that can give me advice please let me know.

OK...

So the cops are going to jail, right????

Yet another reason to not visit a red state

This is yet another reason to not visit a red state, or due business with a red state company, particularly any southern red state. Their self-imposed isolation from the world has breed an "us against them", "the ends justify the means" mentality that allows this type of activity.

Nothing to do with Red States / Blue States

There are asset forfeitures all over the place.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department killed one property owner when they raided his property looking for drugs. There were no allegations whatsoever that he had any drugs -- in fact, he was quite outspoken against drugs -- but his property (which they had appraised before the raid) was worth enough to make them go after it.

I think it was in Wisconsin where an apartment building owner asked the police to do something about drug dealing by tenants in his building. They refused. The next time he complained, they siezed the building under asset forfeiture laws because the fact that he complained before showed that he had knowledge about drugs in the building.

If you think this is a Red State / Blue State thing, you are horribly misinformed.

you're right---it's a green ($$$) state thing

$$$ talks and bs walks

Thank you for pointing out the bogus "party" blame

I'm tired of people attempting to make any issue a red state/blue state or republican/democrat issue when so many issues are simply an America gone wrong issue, it does not matter what puppet is in charge. It is most definitely a green state thing, we're all guilty of allowing this "all about money" thing to go on.

Call their bluff!

Well, of course, I am not a member of a minority that was stopped in this town, so this is all speculative, but I think it has less to do with minorities, per se, and more to do with those individuals these "authorities" do not think will fight back, the grandmother whose life savings was taken, for instance. After all, according to a CNN report, the cop who does the most "arrests" is an African American, himself. Personally, I don't think these people are willing to back up their threats, because, after all, what they want is some quick cash, and not a "house guest". In other word's, call thier bluff, and invite arrest. In fact, if anyone wanted to "protest" this sort of thing, a large group of African Americans might set up a convoy for a quick tour of this town. Have a little cash in each car, and try to get as many as could stay a bit, stopped. Then see how many actually get to stay.

Piracy on Land

According to CNN judges are also in on it. They recently brought this type of theft to Canada. No wonder the police and government lawyers were all exited about their new toy!

HIGHWAY ROBB

IT A DAM SHAME THAT PEOPLE ARE GETTING RIPPED OFF ON OUR HIGHWAYS NOT BY CRIMINAL BANDITS BUT BY THE FOLKS WE PUT IN OFFICE TO PROTECT US AND SOMETIMES YOU WANDER WHY SOME FLOKS ARE SCARE TO STOP IT'S FUNNY HOW THE MONEY THAT IS CONFISCATED IS FINE FOR THE LAW TO TAKE AND USE BUT YOU ARE A CRIMINAL BECAUSE THEY SAY IT'S DRUG MONEY AND I AGREE DRUG MONEY IS TINTED WITH BLOOD AND SO MANY PEOPLE ARE KILLED EVERY DAY OVER DRUGS IF DRUG MONEY IS BAD THEN BURN IT AND CHARGE THE PEOPLE AND GET THEM OFF OUR STREETS INSTEAD YOU ARE PROMOTING A VERY DANGEROUS ACTIVITY AND YOU ARE TELLING THE CRIMINALS IT'S OK TO DEAL IN DRUGS IF WE CATCH YOU WILL LET YOU GO SOME FOR ME AND SOME FOR YOU SOME TOME YOU WIN SOMETIMES YOU DON'T PS I BET NOT ALL THE MONEY IS ACCOUNTED FOR MAKES YOU WANDER HOW MUCH IS NOT REPORTED AND JUST GOES INTO OFFICERS POCKETS IF THIS IS BEING DONE TO HELP OUT LETS HELP THE WHOLE COMMUNITIES NOT JUST THE POLICE DEPARTMENTS

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