This is really one for the books.
March 11, 2009
Reporting from Tenaha, Texas -- You can drive into this dusty fleck of a town near the Texas-Louisiana state line 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: 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, Ohio, 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 or convicted of any crime.
Officials in Tenaha, along a heavily traveled state highway connecting Houston with several popular gambling destinations in Louisiana, say they are engaged in a battle against drug trafficking, and they 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. But civil rights lawyers call Tenaha's practice something else: highway robbery. The attorneys have filed a federal class-action lawsuit seeking unspecified damages and a halt to what they contend is an unconstitutional perversion of the law's intent, used primarily against African Americans 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 nonwhite citizens and those traveling with nonwhite citizens," asserts the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Texas.
Partial to Minorities
David Guillory, an attorney in nearby 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, the police seized cash, jewelry, cellphones 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 that all but one of them were black.
SOURCE: LA TIMES
By Howard Witt
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