Quantcast

«

»

Aug 11 2012

Texas Asset Forfeiture Case Settled

I wrote a couple years ago about the incredible class action lawsuit against the town of Tenaha, Texas over a scheme to use the asset forfeiture laws to do nothing less than commit highway robbery from behind a badge. That case has now been settled, though that settlement has not yet been approved by the court.

Tenaha is a tiny town in East Texas of about a thousand people that had managed to seize more than $3 million in cash and property from motorists. In about 150 cases in two years, the Tenaha police seized cash or property without ever charging or even having any actual suspicion that the victims had broken the law at all. They did this by threatening to charge people with drug running and money laundering if they didn’t hand over the money they had on them. Then they used the money to give raises to the officers that seized the most money.

There aren’t any details on the settlement yet, but the ACLU said this in a press release:

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.

That’s a good start, but still not enough. These laws need to be done away with, period. The government should not be allowed to seize cash or property without convicting — not charging, convicting — the owner of a crime and showing that the assets being seized were either used in or gained through the commission of that crime.

17 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    Ben P

    The government should not be allowed to seize cash or property without convicting — not charging, convicting — the owner of a crime and showing that the assets being seized were either used in or gained through the commission of that crime.

    I mostly agree, but just to play devils advocate here I’ll give you a scenario.

    The police get a strong tip that a house a X address is being used as a drug dealer safehouse. The police get a warrant and initiate a search. They find evidence that the house was vacated minutes before the search and no one is inside. Police find $10,000 in cash and a substantial cache of drugs inside the house. Police watch the house for a while but correctly figure that the suspect is gone and is smart enough not to come back to attempt to collect the stash.

    I think it’s relatively common sense that the drugs, as contraband, are seized, held as evidence and eventually destroyed.

    What about the money? If there’s no suspect, but clear evidence the money is related to drugs, what are the authorites obligated to do with it?

  2. 2
    slc1

    The reason why these laws were passed was to prevent alleged miscreants from using the fruits of illegal activities to defend themselves in court proceedings. Clearly, the system has been abused and needs to be fixed but I’m not sure that it’s good policy to allow the fruits of illegal activities to be used to thwart justice. However, if the system can’t be fixed to prevent abuses, then it should be abolished.

  3. 3
    jayarrrr

    @Ben P- Not exactly the same scenario. In your case, it’s abandoned property.

    In Tenaha, they pulled you over for flaky reasons (“unsafe lane change”, Driving While Black) then any cash and anything else they saw that they took a fancy to they proclaimed as having been bought with “drug money” and seized it. “An I-PAD?? You got an iPad? Hell, I wish *I* could afford an iPad! How’d you buy that?”

    I imagine the settlement bans them from using dogs because their dogs have been trained to “alert” on subtle cues from the handler.

  4. 4
    jaybee

    This is the kind of thing that erodes public trust, like dipping it in an acid bath. It isn’t just that there were a few corrupt cops — it was corrupt from the top down. But that isn’t the main thing.

    The main thing is that the very people who did it apparently are not getting punished, will simply be told to stop doing it, and will be in their jobs, just the same as before, and we, the public, are expected to respect their authority.

  5. 5
    reverendrodney

    It amazes me that so many ever harsher laws are passed in the war on drugs but not against banks and other financial institutions that rip off many times the dollar amounts handled in the drug trade.

    This may be OT, but why can’t asset forfeiture laws be applied to white collar crimes as well? The way it stands, banksters are dinged pennies on the dollar, and very few serve time.

  6. 6
    Marcus Ranum

    They find evidence that the house was vacated minutes before the search and no one is inside.

    By all means, then, relieve the police of the need to get evidence of a crime. :\ You can see where that leads.

  7. 7
    d.f.manno

    @#1 Ben P: Destroy it as well. Thus no incentive to LEOs to fudge things.

  8. 8
    grumpyoldfart

    Land of Hope and Glory! You Americans make me laugh.

  9. 9
    Trickster Goddess

    @2 slc1

    There is a contradiction in your thinking: Under law, a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, therefore you can’t prove their assets are “fruits of illegal activities” until they have had a trial.

    “I’m not sure that it’s good policy to allow the fruits of illegal activities to be used to thwart justice.”

    Since when is allowing a defendant to afford a lawyer “thwarting justice”? That’s really screwed up. Preventing the accused from being able to pay for a proper defense is known as “railroading”.

  10. 10
    Ben P

    @Ben P- Not exactly the same scenario. In your case, it’s abandoned property.

    You’re saying that if I’m renting a house and leave $10,000 in the house it’s abandoned?

    That’s not the law at all….

  11. 11
    Ben P

    By all means, then, relieve the police of the need to get evidence of a crime. :\ You can see where that leads.

    I think you misread what I was intending, but looking at the quote I didn’t write it very clearly.

    I was going for the “suspect flees out the back door as the cops pull up front” scenario. Cops go into the house on a search warrant and find, say, still warm food inside, showing someone was there minutes ago. They also find money and drugs.

    This is clear evidence a crime has been committed, but they don’t have anything that can Identify a suspect.

  12. 12
    slc1

    Re Trickster Goddess @ #9

    I’m just saying what the reasoning was behind the law.

  13. 13
    davem

    …and the police involved are now in jail for theft, right?

  14. 14
    Trickster Goddess

    @12

    Maybe so, but you did use the word “I” in the part I quoted.

  15. 15
    Infophile

    @2,9: Why do we let people pay for their own lawyers at all? That’s little more than an invitation for the rich to buy justice that the poor can’t. IMO, we should just have everyone be defended by public defenders (and their per-case budget should be equal to the prosecution’s).

  16. 16
    Ichthyic

    There aren’t any details on the settlement yet

    settlement?

    since when does extortion fall under civil law?

    *shakes head*

  17. 17
    jayarrrr

    “I was going for the “suspect flees out the back door as the cops pull up front” scenario. Cops go into the house on a search warrant and find, say, still warm food inside, showing someone was there minutes ago. They also find money and drugs.”

    Ah, I misunderstood. I thought you meant the cops came in and the place looked like it had been vacated, as in people moved out, in a hurry, but they left their 10 kilobucks behind. I think I’d leave the plasma screen and take the cash, but that’s just me.

Leave a Reply

Switch to our mobile site