In August 2012, the ACLU settled a class action suit against officials in Tenaha and Shelby Counties in Texas, where police seized an estimated $3 million from innocent motorists between 2006 and 2008. Police officers routinely pulled over motorists, usually Black or Latino, without any legal justification, asked if they were carrying cash and, if they were, ordered them to hand over the cash to the city or face charges of money laundering or other serious crimes. This happened in over 140 cases. Here are some of the stories.
James Morrow, a 32-year-old African American from Arkansas, was driving through Tenaha, Texas on his way to visit a cousin in Houston in August 2007 when he was pulled over for allegedly “driving too close to the white line.” Though he had neither committed a crime nor had a warrant out for his arrest, a police officer ordered Morrow out of his car and began interrogating him on the side of the road in this 1,000-person town in East Texas. Despite having no evidence that Morrow had ties to crime, the police officer continued to badger him, asking if he had any money with him and eventually bringing an untrained dog to the scene to sniff the car.
The police searched James Morrow’s car and seized $3,969 in cash they found, as well as two cell phones. They accused Morrow of money laundering, for no other reason than carrying cash in his private car. Morrow spent the night in the local jail, where the police and the district attorney threatened to prosecute him for laundering money unless he forfeited the cash to the officers, and warned him not to hire a lawyer or try to get his money back.
Morrow was never charged with a crime. He hired an attorney to fight to get his money back, but after paying $3,500 in attorney fees he was left with little more than $400.
“I was victim of truly unjust law enforcement practices and just couldn’t walk away,” Morrow said of the experience, adding that he couldn’t “believe that this went on in modern times.”
Javier Flores & William Parsons
Javier Flores, a 29-year-old artist of Hispanic descent, and his friend William Parsons, 31, were visiting friends in Pittsburgh in 2008 when they got news of a hurricane headed toward their hometowns in southwest Texas. They had planned to fly home at a later date, but anxious to help their families prepare back home, Flores and Parsons booked a rental car, taking turns driving through the night to beat the storm.
Flores and Parsons were pulled over near the small town of Tenaha on their way home. Flores, an auto mechanic at the time, wore his hair in an afro and was frequently mistaken as African-American although he is Latino. Parsons, a college student and part time truck driver, was often mistaken as Hispanic although he is white.
The officer circled the car a few times with a dog before conducting a full search of the car. As one officer searched the rental car, the other handcuffed Flores and put him in the backseat of the police vehicle. The officers took $8,400 they found among the luggage in the trunk of the rental car, telling Parsons (falsely) that he could not legally carry more than $1,500. They threatened prison time and invented charges of money laundering, bullying Flores and Parsons into waiving their rights to the money in exchange for their release.
Though the pair was never charged with money laundering – or with any offense or violation, for that matter – it cost them $5,000 in legal fees to recover the money taken from them on the side of Highway 59.
Flores said he “doesn’t even want to drive anywhere now” and that he’s stopped taking road trips to California, opting to stay home for fear of being profiled on the road. He cut his hair and avoids growing it too long.
Jennifer Boatright, her former partner Ron Henderson, and their two small children were driving a rental car in April 2007 when they were pulled over on Highway 59 by Tenaha police.
Despite having allegedly pulled over the interracial couple for driving in a left-turn lane, the officers never wrote a traffic ticket, instead interrogating them about whether they were carrying money. When Boatright said they had around $6,000 on them to buy a used car, the officers began searching the car.
The police seized $6,037 in cash as well as a roadside assistance kit from the car, with no legal justification for the search or the seizure. Despite finding no drugs or contraband, the couple was arrested and threatened with charges of money laundering. The officers also threatened to send their kids to foster care, coercing the couple into signing a form waiving all rights to the money in exchange for letting them leave with their children.
“It was give them the money or they were taking our kids,” Jennifer Boatright later told the Chicago Tribune. “They suggested that we never bring it up again. We figured we better give them our cash and get the hell out of there.”
Maryland-based restaurant owner Dale Agostini, his fiancée, their one-year-old son and a cook who works with Agostini, all black, were stopped for allegedly driving in the left lane while traveling on Highway 59 near Tenaha in 2007. The Tenaha police officer ordered Agostini out of the car and began interrogating him and, later, his passengers. Police officers used an untrained dog to “sniff” the car, and then initiated a search. They found and took $50,291 that Agostini was carrying to buy equipment for his Washington, D.C. restaurant, Sweet Mango, where he had worked for over 20 years. The officers also took six cell phones, an iPod, and eventually seized the car.
Agostini and his passengers were taken back to the station, where the police said they were arresting everybody and calling Child Protective Services to take the baby. They were threatened with criminal charges of money laundering and engaging in organized criminal activity, though no criminal charges were ever made.
Agostini asked to call a lawyer, but was told he couldn’t make a call until he’d been in jail for four hours. He then asked if he could kiss his baby son Amir goodbye, but police refused. One officer told Agostini that he could kiss his son when he got out of jail. The adults were taken to the county jail and the baby was taken away.
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