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Critiques of the Judiciary
“I'm concerned that this [forfeiture] program has become too much of a money-making machine for government.”

--Senator Chuck Grassley

Defending Victims of Asset Forfeiture Abuse

Morrow, et al. v. City of Tenaha, et al.

Policing for Profit (Part 3)

The American Civil Liberties Union and Institute for Justice are two national organizations dedicated to reforming existing civil asset forfeiture laws that are abused by state and federal law enforcement agencies to improperly seize the property of citizens who are not guilty of any crime.  Assets thus seized are often used to enhance the operations of governmental agencies, thereby providing an incentive for the continued abuse of forfeiture statutes.

Linda Burt of the Wyoming ACLU (see video) describes what the ACLU is doing to defend individuals vicitimised by law enforcement officers who improperly seized their property under circumstances where no crime had been committed.  Among ACLU's actions is the lawsuit of Morrow, et al. v. City of Tenaha, et al., described briefly in the following report by the Institute for Justice, and more completely in ACLU's Memorandum Opinion and Order that granted class-action status to its lawsuit on August 29, 2011.  The case was settled by Consent Decree, filed August 6, 2012 (see press release).

Shakedown in Tenaha, Texas

Institute for Justice

In October 2007, law enforcement officials in Tenaha, Texas, pulled Roderick Daniels over for allegedly traveling 37 mph in a 35 mph zone. Upon discovering $8,500 in cash that the Tennessee man had planned to use to buy a new car, the officers took Daniels to jail and threatened to charge him with money-laundering unless he turned over the cash. Daniels surrendered his property. "To be honest, I was five, six hundred miles from home. I was petrified," he said.

Daniels' experience was far from unusual in Tenaha. Between 2006 and 2008, local officials stopped more than 140, mostly black, out-of-state drivers, including a grandmother from Akron, a black family from Maryland and an interracial family from Houston. Once arrested, officers took them to jail and threatened to file charges unless they signed pre-notarized statements relinquishing any claim to their valuables. Officers seized cash, cars, cell phones, jewelry and even sneakers. In most cases, criminal charges were never filed and there was no evidence to conclude the motorists were engaged in illicit activity.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids "...involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted..."

A federal lawsuit filed in July 2008 accuses authorities of targeting minorities driving rental cars or vehicles with out-of-state plates. "My take on the matter is that the police in Tenaha, Texas, were picking on and preying on people that were least likely to fight back," said David Guillory, who represents eight plaintiffs.

Although law enforcement alleges that the stretch of road on which the stops are made is a major drug corridor between Shreveport, La., and Houston, Texas, none of the plaintiffs has been arrested for, much less convicted of, violating drug laws.

Jennifer Boatright and her husband Ronald Henderson relinquished more than $6,000 after police and the Shelby County District Attorney threatened to charge them with money-laundering and put their two children in foster care. "I said, 'If it's the money you want, you can take it, if that's what it takes to keep my children with me and not separate them from us. Take the money,'" said Boatright.

Maryland resident Amanee Busbee was traveling to Houston with her son, fiancé and business partner to complete the purchase of a restaurant. "The police officer would say things to me like, 'Your son is going to child protective services because you are not saying what we need to hear,'" said Busbee.

Guillory says of the 40 motorists he contacted, 39 were black. He estimates officials seized $3 million between 2006 and 2008 from improper seizures. Public records requests revealed that the District Attorney used some of the money to buy a $524 popcorn machine, $195 for candy and $400 for catering. Seized funds also went to the local Chamber of Commerce, a youth baseball league and a local church.

Officials have denied any wrongdoing but have returned Roderick Daniels's possessions as well as Boatright and Henderson's.

Copyright 1997-2015, Institute for Justice

Adapted from: Institute for Justice, "Shakedown in Tenaha, Texas," Asset Forfeiture Report: Sidebar, (Undated, and with references deleted), https://www.ij.org/shakedown-in-tenaha-texas-2, accessed 06/03/2015.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

Video adapted from: Wyoming Liberty Group, "Protecting Property Rights from Civil Asset Forfeiture," February 6, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0yeiMU_ciw, accessed 05/31/2015.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

ACLU Announces Settlement in "Highway Robbery"
Cases in Texas

Consent Decree Reforms Egregious Asset Forfeiture Practices
and Rampant Racial Profiling by Police
For Immediate Release
August 3, 2012

NEW YORK — Police in an East Texas city will no longer enrich their coffers by seizing assets from innocent Black and Latino drivers and threatening them with baseless criminal charges, under a settlement reached today with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU settled a class-action suit, pending court approval, against officials in Tenaha and Shelby County, where it is estimated police seized $3 million between 2006 and 2008 in at least 140 cases. Police officers routinely pulled over motorists in the vicinity of Tenaha without any legal justification, asked if they were carrying cash and, if they were, ordered them to sign over the cash to the city or face charges of money laundering or other serious crimes.

Almost all of the stops involved Black and Latino drivers. None of the plaintiffs in the case were ever arrested or charged with a crime. The seized assets were used to enrich the defendants' offices and themselves.

"This was a brazen case of highway robbery, plain and simple," said Elora Mukherjee, a staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program. "Law enforcement needs to focus on protecting the communities they serve, not on policing for profit. This far-reaching settlement radically alters how officers in Tenaha and Shelby County can go about their daily duties and protects all motorists driving along Highway 59."

The ACLU has found multiple instances of this happening across other states, but Tenaha represented some of the worst abuses in racial profiling and civil asset forfeiture. The suit, which was filed in 2008, detailed several instances of police pulling over motorists with no legal justification. In one instance, a Black man and his partner, a white woman, were detained during a 2007 traffic stop. In response to a question by an officer, they stated they had about $6,000 in cash. The officer threatened to charge the couple with money laundering and put their children, who were traveling with them, in foster care, if they did not sign papers agreeing to forfeit the money.

"What happened in Tenaha is not unique when it comes to abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws," said Vanita Gupta, ACLU deputy legal director. "Permissive civil asset forfeiture laws invite racial profiling. They incentivize police agencies to engage in unconstitutional behavior in order to fund themselves off the backs of low-income motorists, most of whom lack the means to fight back, without any hard evidence of criminal activity. It is no way to run our justice system."

Texas law allows for the confiscation of personal property police believe is connected to commission of a crime. It also allows for police agencies to retain seized assets, though 2011 reforms in Texas's civil asset forfeiture law no longer permit those assets to be used for increasing officers' salaries without prior approval from the commissioners' court or other governing body.

Under the consent decree filed today in the U.S. District Court in Marshall, police will now be required to observe rigorous rules that will govern traffic stops in Tenaha and Shelby County. All stops will now be videotaped, and the officer must state the reason for the stop and the basis for suspecting criminal activity. Motorists pulled over during a traffic stop must be advised orally and in writing that they can refuse a search.

In addition, officers are no longer using dogs in conducting traffic stops. No property may be seized during a search unless the officer first gives the driver a reason for why it should be taken. All property improperly taken must be returned within 30 business days. And any asset forfeiture revenue seized during a traffic stop must be donated to non-profit organizations or used for the audio and video equipment or training required by the settlement.

Lawyers on the case include Elora Mukherjee and Sarah Hinger of the ACLU, as well as Timothy Garrigan of Stuckey Garrigan & Castetter, David Guillory of Lone Star Legal Aid, and Stephanie Kay Stephens, Attorney at Law, all in Nacogdoches, Texas.

Copyright 2015, American Civil Liberties Union

Adapted from: American Civil Liberties Union, "ACLU Announces Settlement in "Highway Robbery" Cases in Texas; Consent Decree Reforms Egregious Asset Forfeiture Practices and Rampant Racial Profiling by Police," August 3, 2012, https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-announces-settlement-highway-robbery-cases-texas, accessed 06/06/2015.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

Additional Reading


On June 22, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government may not seize personal property without just compensation.











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