Top County Law Enforcement Official Accused Of Illegally Seizing Cash From Minority Motorists
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AUSTIN – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Texas today filed a brief with the Texas Attorney General's office opposing a request by Shelby County District Attorney Lynda K. Russell to use money she allegedly seized illegally from motorists to defend herself against a federal lawsuit accusing her of stripping drivers – almost all of them black – of their property without ever charging them with a crime. The brief also argues that either the county or state, both of which have refused to defend Russell, must be accountable for Russell's actions and cannot decline to represent her.
Russell is accused of participating in a scheme in which authorities pull over mostly African-American motorists driving along a state highway in Tenaha, TX without cause, ask if they are carrying cash and, if so, order them to sign over the cash to the town or face felony charges of money laundering or other serious crimes.
"The government must account for the misconduct of officials who operate in its name," said Vanita Gupta, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, who represented African-American residents of Tulia, TX in high-profile litigation challenging their wrongful convictions on drug charges. "The state of Texas has seen egregious examples of racial profiling that result from poor oversight of criminal justice officials."
Officials in Tenaha have claimed that the seizures are a legitimate use of the state's asset forfeiture laws as part of a battle against drug trafficking. But according to the lawsuit, more than 140 people, almost all of whom were African-American, turned over their assets to police without cause and under duress between June 2006 and June 2008. If a federal judge agrees that assets were in fact illegally seized, they should be returned to their rightful owners, whose civil rights were violated.
"It would be completely inappropriate for the district attorney to use assets which are the very subject of litigation charging her with participating in allegedly illegal activity to defend herself against these charges," said Lisa Graybill, Legal Director at the ACLU of Texas. "Texas has a long history of having its law enforcement officials unconstitutionally target racial minorities in the flawed and failed war on drugs and it is of paramount importance that those officials be held accountable."
Shelby County Commissioners have also refused to pay for Russell's defense, so Russell is now asking the state Attorney General's office to clarify whether the forfeited funds can be used to pay for her defense, a move the ACLU opposes because there is already too much discretion on how forfeited funds can be used.
"The misuse of asset forfeiture laws by local officials is exacerbated by inadequate oversight," said Matt Simpson, Policy Strategist for the ACLU of Texas. "The legislature must squarely address these reported civil rights violations via reform of forfeiture laws that strengthen protection against unconstitutional conduct and racial profiling."
Reports of racial profiling and abuse connected to asset forfeiture are not unique to Tenaha, but are emerging state-wide. Earlier this year, State Sen. John Whitmire of Houston sought to change forfeiture laws by introducing legislation that would have reformed Texas asset forfeiture law. The legislation was stalled by procedural matters in the Texas legislature, leaving intact a lack of accountability in the seizing and use of assets seized under current asset forfeiture law.
ACLU lawyers involved in drafting today's brief include Gupta, Graybill and Chloe Cockburn of the ACLU Racial Justice Program.
A copy of the ACLU brief is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice/racialprofiling/41215res20091001.html
A copy of the civil lawsuit naming Russell is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice/racialprofiling/41213lgl20091001.html
Additional information about the ACLU Racial Justice Program is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice
Additional information about the ACLU of Texas is available online at: www.aclutx.org