Highway robbery? Texas police seize black motorists' cash, cars
Suit says cops force motorists, largely black, to forfeit cash and cars—or be charged with trumped-up crimes
By Howard Witt Tribune correspondent
March 10, 2009
TENAHA, Texas— You can drive into this dusty fleck of a town near the Texas-Louisiana border if you're African-American, but you might not be able to drive out of it—at least not with your car, your cash, your jewelry or other valuables.
That's because the police here allegedly have found a way to strip motorists, many of them black, of their property without ever charging them with a crime. Instead they offer out-of-towners a grim choice: voluntarily sign over your belongings to the town, or face felony charges of money laundering or other serious crimes.
More than 140 people reluctantly accepted that deal from June 2006 to June 2008, according to court records. Among them were a black grandmother from Akron, who surrendered $4,000 in cash after Tenaha police pulled her over, and an interracial couple from Houston, who gave up more than $6,000 after police threatened to seize their children and put them into foster care, the court documents show. Neither the grandmother nor the couple were charged with any crime.
Officials in Tenaha, situated along a heavily traveled highway connecting Houston with popular gambling destinations in Louisiana, say they are engaged in a battle against drug trafficking and call the search-and-seizure practice a legitimate use of the state's asset-forfeiture law. That law permits local police agencies to keep drug money and other property used in the commission of a crime and add the proceeds to their budgets.
"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."
But civil rights lawyers call Tenaha's practice something else: highway robbery. The attorneys have filed a federal class-action lawsuit to stop what they contend is an unconstitutional perversion of the law's intent, aimed primarily at blacks who have done nothing wrong.
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," asserts the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Texas.
The property seizures are not just happening in Tenaha. In southern parts of Texas near the Mexican border, for example, Hispanics allege that they are being singled out.
According to a prominent state legislator, police agencies across Texas are wielding the asset-forfeiture law more aggressively to supplement their shrinking operating budgets.
"If used properly, it's a good law-enforcement tool to see that crime doesn't pay," said state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee. "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."
David Guillory, an attorney in Nacogdoches who filed the federal lawsuit, said he combed through Shelby County court records from 2006 to 2008 and discovered nearly 200 cases in which Tenaha police seized cash and property from motorists. In about 50 of the cases, suspects were charged with drug possession.
But in 147 others, Guillory said the court records showed, police seized cash, jewelry, cell phones and sometimes even automobiles from motorists but never found any contraband or charged them with any crime. Of those, Guillory said he managed to contact 40 of the motorists directly—and discovered all but one of them were black.
"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."
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Will the Obama Justice Department investigate this?