Saturday, February 14, 2009

TX, Tenaha: Property seized by police called “highway piracy”

A two-decade-old state law that grants authorities the power to seize property used in a crime is wielded by some agencies against people who are never charged with, much less convicted, of a crime. Law enforcement authorities in this East Texas town of 1,000 people seized property from at least 140 motorists between 2006 and 2008, and, to date, filed criminal charges against fewer than half, according to a San Antonio Express-News review of court documents.

Virtually anything of value was up for grabs: cash, cell phones, personal jewelry, a pair of sneakers, and often, the very car that was being driven through town. Some affidavits filed by officers relied on the presence of seemingly innocuous property as the only evidence that a crime had occurred.

Linda Dorman, a great-grandmother from Akron, Ohio, had $4,000 in cash taken from her by local authorities when she was stopped while driving through town after visiting Houston in April 2007. Court records make no mention that anything illegal was found in her van and show no criminal charges filed in the case. She is still waiting for the return of what she calls “her life savings.” Dorman’s attorney, David Guillory, calls the roadside stops and seizures in Tenaha “highway piracy,” undertaken by a couple of law enforcement officers whose agencies get to keep most of what is seized. Guillory is suing officials in Tenaha and Shelby County on behalf of Dorman and nine other clients who were stripped of their property. All were African-Americans driving either rentals or vehicles with out-of-state plates.

Guillory alleges in the lawsuit that while his clients were detained, they were presented with an ultimatum: waive your rights to your property in exchange for a promise to be released and not be criminally charged. Guillory said most did as Dorman did, signing the waiver to avoid jail. The state’s asset seizure law doesn’t require that law enforcement agencies file criminal charges in civil forfeiture cases. It requires only a preponderance of evidence that the property was used in the commission of certain crimes, such as drug crimes, or bought with proceeds of those crimes. That’s a lesser burden than that required in a criminal case.

But Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said the state’s asset forfeiture law is being abused by enough jurisdictions across the state that he wants to rewrite major sections of it this year. “The idea that people lose their property but are never charged and never get it back, that’s theft as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Supporters tout the state’s forfeiture law, when used right, as an essential law enforcement tool, allowing state and local departments the ability to go after criminals using the criminals’ money. Law enforcement agencies last year captured tens of millions of dollars from such seizures statewide, according to records from Whitmire’s office. But in Tenaha, a town of chicken farms that hugs the Louisiana border, critics say being a black out-of-towner passing through with anything of value is almost evidence of a crime.

Tenaha Mayor George Bowers, 80, defended the seizures, saying they allowed a cash-poor city the means to add a second police car in a two-policeman town and help pay for a new police station. “It’s always helpful to have any kind of income to expand your police force,” Bowers said.

More here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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