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.

Learn more about asset forfeiture abuse: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Add a comment (20)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

Texas isnt the only place this is happening . Try southern GA , Camden County where the PD purchased a Dodge Viper with "seized" money.

Anonymous

Someone should be looking into what Barry Washington was doing when he was a state trooper in Panola County.... Everyone in Carthage had a pretty good suspicion that he was on the take then....

RockstarFromMars

Someone should look into what Barry Washington was doing when he was a state trooper in Panola County... Many people in Carthage had a pretty good idea that he was on the take then...

Anonymous

Texas law, chapter 59 of the code of criminal procedure, does not permit seized funds to be donated to non-profits.

Anonymous

Not far enough. They should have demanded that the cops involved be removed from the street.

Anonymous

What occurred in Tenaha only begins to describe the rampant corruption that has been going on in Shelby County Texas for decades. This is the county that voted 73% for the GOP presidential candidate. It is not only blacks and other minorities that are systematically targeted with persistent and incessant harassment, kidnappings, and death, but almost anyone who does not conform to the social values of the Masonic social order rampant throughout the South and most of the rest of this country. Here in Shelby County and contiguous counties, and also in Houston, Lufkin, Dallas and Fort Worth Texas, as well as in Shreveport Louoisiana, Ruston, West Monroe and Monroe Louisiana is the use of GPS Tracking Surveillance used extensively for decades. The homeless, in particular have been targeted, as well as those chronically unemployed. Yes, and most of our homeless Veterans have been targeted. Try to understand why, when the unemployment rate goes up, homelessness goes down. Where do you think all those homeless people are? If you don't have any idea what's being written here, then try to understand Matthew 23!

Anonymous

GPS Tracking installed in automobiles in Shelby County is Rampant.

?

Franklin county Missouri, Saint Clair and Union. They have can and will get you and kill you if you try to be more than a meek and frightened compliant little mouse. If you stand up for yourself at all mysterious things begin to happen. Usually group intimidation, "accidental automobile homicide" and corrupt mistreatment by local city and local state. They have connections by proxy of their maffia. It is a mafia. There are lots of "accidents" and gang beatings and bullying of our children in the schools. The police are very corrupt and dangerous here. Put it to the test. See for yourself.

Anonymous

Thank every one, who helped to bring this horror to a end. I personally am ashamed of not having in some small way tried to stop the obvious criminal abuse by the local "law" officers and officials. I would like to apologize to any and all who were abused while traveling thru this small town. I much like, most citizens living around this community, were not aware of all the facts, yet I'm sure,none, were blind or ignorant as to some portion of the abuse. Personally I had witnessed enough to know, I should stand up and call the attention of our community, to this, as it was flagrantly a violation to the constitutional rights of any and all citizens. This old farmer prays forgiveness for his inaction, as I am guilty as, any, for turning a blind eye to the situation.
My Profound apology to the abused as well as all Americans,
Bryan Bowlin

Anonymous

It should be noted that officer Barry Washington is retired from the Texas Department Of Public Safety, He was stationed several years in Panola county where he gained the nickname " Big Nose Barry" due to his repeated reports the reason for having stopped a vehicle on US Hyway 59 was because he smelled drugs!

Pages

Sign Up for Breaking News