Settlement Means No More Highway Robbery in Tenaha, Texas

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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Jay Kellog

I would be much more impressed with the ACLU's actions if these criminal conspirators, from the Mayor, the DA, and the Police Chief on down were charged with the obvious crimes they are guilty of. Instead, there is NO mention of the ALL victims getting their money & property back, their records cleared, the town paying heavily for their pain & suffering. If I, as private citizen, did even HALF the extortion of these officials, I'd be looking at a Bernie Maddoff sentence. Instead, they'll retire with full benefits and honors with the promise they'll be better in the future. Sorry ACLU, not very impressed. This should have been front page news everyday until Texas -or the DOJ- relented, and prosecuted these people. Public shaming with faces attached to the names goes alot further that quiet proceedings in a sterile law office...

Judy Lerner Au...

I am sick reading this but not surprised. Texas is a lousy place, if you're not among the so-called elite (??) -look at the idiot pres. they produced. Unfortunately, not by choice when I was living in Fla. at the age of 20 my boyfriend & I were stopped as we set out in his car for a day of sightseeing upstate. He was in the Coastguard stationed in Coconut Grove at the time & his car had Vermont plates. The fat red-faced bubba who stopped us for nothing I can even remember, but took his money as he knew he couldn't return to the area to go to court. That ended our day very early & we just returned home. I have always hated the south, the drawls, the ignorance, the arrogance. I grew up there but got out as soon as I could!

Anonymous

After reading about this in the New Republic Magazine, I did a search and found this website on the subject.

I will be sure to ALWAYS AVOID this corrupted town and I am a white person too. I don't need to be singled out while on tourist road trip way from the security of home. This scares the creeps out of me in the 21st century in the USA.

Secondly I see the ACLU settled for nothing other than the return of illegally seized assets. If the ACLU had any brains, they should demanded the arrest(s) of all police and town officials involved and their prosecution from an outside-the-area law enforcement.

With only a 'settlement' these law enforcement creeps are still free to terrorize motorists passing through town.

The towns' people should be ashamed for allowing this happen and don't give the same nazi jew killing campaing excuse we didn't know about it.

Anonymous

These people are just gang members in uniform. What a joke! Instead of protect and serve, it's lie and steal. I don't have any plans to visit that area, but I'll make sure never to set foot there. Those "officers" should be ashamed. When police power gets too strong, this is what you get: abuse. Cops are people, too, and subject to the same imperfections we all are. Limiting police power=more freedom, because obviously these folks can't handle the power they have.

ecotoper

this american brand of somalian piracy has been going on for decades ... back in the 60's and 70's carolina and georgia local cops would stop college kids driving to florida for spring break ... my friends and i were taken to a back room in a restaurant by a fat pig of a georgia cop, where he and his buddy made us empty our pockets and give them all the cash we had ... they went through our wallets, bags etc ... left us penniless ... no ticket, just a blatant armed robbery of the northern college kids they so hated ... i live in oregon now, and it's much more sophisticated, but it still goes on ... rural counties are trying to augment their sagging budgets by harassing mororists with bogus speed traps with unmarked lowered speed limits ... these are the public servants who are supposed to be protecting us from real crime, not inflicting their own brand of crime ...

Anonymouse

This doesn't just happen in the South, it happens all over the country. Excellent start though, ACLU. For the people saying that the ACLU didn't do enough because the people involved are not in prison, I don't think it wasn't up to the ACLU. Criminal charges would have to be made by the police or DAs office and they obviously were not going to arrest and charge themselves with crimes.

Robert Wyman

I have read about this in the New Yorker. The comments here, in part, show why this occurs and not just in Tenaha Texas. It occurs all over the US. It began with 1914 era drug laws based in racism and the constant media barrage on the evils of drugs then and now. Drugs are not evil. Drinking and driving is a bad decision but MADD is worse. My point is that the public buys into the overblown media frenzy which in turn allows lawmakers to create more laws and for law enforcement to demand more "tools". The "tools" are what we see here: illegal traffic stops, no probable cause, profiling, theft, ransoms, coercion abuse of power and the erosion of our Rights.
Police have become badge heavy "cowboys" and the justice system is now the "just us" system. Not many people I ask know their Rights as to a traffic stop and police know this. Tenaha is not corrupt as some here state, it is a criminal enterprise. All those involved should be imprisoned. One resident apologizes! Sir! Start paying attention to your government! Stop supporting the out-of-control campaign by MADD and citizens who know nothing but demand more and more laws. You and a million more just like you have allowed this to happen! The insanity of giving up Rights and believing police will protect you should be clear to those who could not see before now.
If everyone simply started to exercise their Rights abuses would diminish. You do not and must never talk to police. Never allow a search without a warrant including your vehicle. Drug dogs are illegal without cause and a warrant. During a traffic stop roll your window down 1 inch and no more and again, do not say a word. The Fifth Amendment grants the Right to us to remain silent at all times. Police will cajole you with their bag of tricks but say nothing. Do not get out of your vehicle. If they become belligerent and demand that you exit your vehicle then speak, but only to ask for a supervisor and a member of a separate law enforcement agency be present. If they draw their weapons and kill you then it is your fault for giving them all those "tools" over the years. Also never drive through a DUI checkpoint. Turn around as soon as you are aware you are approaching a checkpoint. It is legal for you to do so. A checkpoint is illegal!
The propaganda that the public has been fed over the years has been the image of a brave officer doing everything to protect the good citizens is now obvious. The truth is that they do not have to and will not protect you. If you speak to an officer you are a fool. They can and will use anything you say against you. Police are not your friends. They never saved a student from a shooter at a school, it is not their job but it is every gun owners fault! Does that make sense? Of course not but that is what many citizens believe and they howl for gun bans. If citizens were disarmed this sort of criminal behavior by police and the courts would escalate beyond anything imaginable but you would never ever hear about it. Disgraceful Officer Washington used the "I smelled marijuana" statement numerous times and therein is the result of drug laws and constant government intrusion into our lives. Yes drugs are dangerous but only when they are illegal.
If you wish to learn of a larger corrupt agency that makes Tenaha look like rank amateurs research the DEA. Find out how Richard Nixon changed racist drug laws into political prisoner offenses even going as far as to magically change marijuana into a narcotic. He had to resign after being caught in a criminal conspiracy which should have sent him to prison. Instead he was pardoned. Every law passed during his administration should have been negated. He was a criminal yet his sociopath ways live on in the self-serving laws he passed and are somehow still accepted by this country. Tenaha is the direct result of Nixon's evil schemes and we have only ourselves to blame. I would say to contact your representatives in government but they no longer act on your behalf. Again I will say that is what you wanted by handing over your Rights and not paying attention.

Anonymous

The same type of thing is happening in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. The law enforcement agencies here can just take money out of your wallet during a traffic stop based on the fact that the money COULD have been used to purchase drugs. The forfeiture actions are usually filed in Tippecanoe Superior Court 4. If you check the court records online, many of the defendants named in the actions have no criminal case filed against them.

Not only can you lose your cash, you can lose your car, house, retirement savings, and anything else you own. Whatever property the prosecutor and law enforcement agencies want to grab, they can take under the Indiana forfeiture statute, and you don't even have to be arrested, charged with, or convicted of any crime.

Tippecanoe County has to be one of the most corrupt counties in the State of Indiana, and most of the citizens here don't seem to care. I can guarantee that forfeiture abuse is going to increase if a certain candidate for Superior Court 4 wins the upcoming primary election. People have a short memory here.

Anonymous

Does anyone know what Fed facility Barry Washington is in? He pulled this shit with me, my wife, and my 10 month old child.... telling me he pulled me over for going 2 miles under the speed limit. He then proceeded to take my belongings, my medication for an ailing tumor, my wifes cash, really all she had left from my doctors apps., and claimed that we had marijuana in our child seat. I'm wanting to write him a letter and see if taking my belongings was worth the time he's doing now.

Anonymous

Did any of the plaintiffs get any reimbursements or financial award in this case? Or did new rules just get put into place going forward? Was anyone in the police department charged for anything?

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