Texas town’s police seize valuables from black motorists

By | March 13, 2009

Texas town's police seize valuables from black motorists

Tenaha is accused of making money by seizing black motorists’ valuables without charging them.

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 have allegedly 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, 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, situated 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.

“We try to enforce the law here,” said George Bowers, mayor of the town of 1,046, 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 lawyers have filed a federal class-action lawsuit to stop what they contend is an unconstitutional perversion of the law’s intent, aimed primarily at 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.

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.

A prominent Texas state legislator said police agencies across the state are wielding the asset-forfeiture law more aggressively to supplement their shrinking operating budgets.

via Texas town’s police seize valuables from black motorists | Top Stories | Star-Telegram.com.

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