Blog of Rights

Settlement Means No More Highway Robbery in Tenaha, Texas

By Elora Mukherjee, Staff Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program at 11:22am

On Friday, the ACLU settled a class action lawsuit, pending court approval, against officials in the East Texas town of Tenaha and Shelby County over the rampant practice of stopping and searching drivers, almost always Black or Latino, and often seizing their cash and other valuable property. The money seized by officers during these stops went directly into department coffers. It was highway robbery, targeting those who could least afford to challenge the officers’ abuse of power, under the guise of a so-called “drug interdiction” program and made possible by Texas’s permissive civil asset forfeiture laws. 

Hundreds, if not more than a thousand, people have been stopped under the interdiction program. From 2006 to 2008, police seized approximately $3 million from at least 140 people as part of the program. None of the ACLU’s clients were ever arrested or charged with a crime after being stopped and shaken down.

Officers who are defendants in the case testified that there were no limits on the searches and seizures conducted under the interdiction program. One of the defendants, Barry Washington, testified that he considered the ethnicity and religion of the motorists to be factors relevant to establishing reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Under oath, when asked what indicators of criminal activity might be, Washington testified:

Well, there could be several things. There could even be indicators on the vehicle. The number one thing is you have two guys stopped, and these two guys are from New York. They’re two Puerto Ricans. They’re driving a car that has a Baptist Church symbol on the back, says First Baptist Church of New York.

The plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit lost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the defendant officers. If they refused to part with their money, officers threatened to arrest them on false money laundering charges and other serious felonies. The consequences for parents of color were even worse: officers threatened mothers like Jennifer Boatwright that if they did not part with their cash and valuables, their children would be taken away from them and put in foster care. This was not an empty threat; when Dale Agostini, a successful restaurant owner, refused to hand over $50,000 in business earnings he was carrying to buy new restaurant equipment, police seized both his money and his 16-month-old son. When Agostini pleaded to keep his son or at least kiss him goodbye, the officers refused and simply continued counting the money they had seized from him.    

Thankfully, pending court approval of the ACLU’s settlement, 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.

To the best of our knowledge, this settlement is unprecedented in not only strictly monitoring traffic stops for racial profiling and other abuses, but also removing the incentives that can lead law enforcement to engage in highway robbery.  

While Tenaha represents some of the most egregious abuses in racial profiling and civil asset forfeiture, the facts are far from unique. The ACLU is investigating similar abuses in states across the nation. In the meantime, the settlement in Tenaha should send a message to law enforcement departments across the nation: officers should focus on protecting the communities they serve, not on policing for profit.

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