If you’re black or Latino, don’t go anywhere near Tenaha, Texas in Shelby County. You might get pulled over for “failing to maintain lanes” or “following too closely” only to have the traffic cop seize your cash, jewelry, vehicle and other possessions in order for you to escape prosecution from money laundering charges even if you’re completely innocent.
For years, Tehana cops had been targeting minorities under their drug enforcement programs and would confiscate any possessions these people would have under asset forfeiture laws. It helped make the county over $3 million. In one case, a couple had to give up over $6,000 in cash to the cop in order not to be charged with “possession of a criminal instrument”:
“Barry Washington, the deputy city marshal who made the stop, took $6,160 as well as two vehicles — one Rivera was driving and another he was towing — on the premise that Rivera, 30, and his companion were in possession of a criminal instrument, records show. Krowski [Rivera’s attorney] said the charge was based on the unproven notion that the vehicle Rivera was towing, a Volkswagen beetle, had a secret compartment. Washington, a former Texas state trooper, testified in his deposition that he believed all the stops were legitimate, and that God had directed him to disrupt drug trafficking on U.S. Highway 59. In addition to the cash and the vehicles, Washington seized a laptop computer, cellphones, a cellphone charger, DVDs and even a carton of cigarettes from Rivera.”
Yeah, “God made him do it.” While that might hold up in court where his buddy might be the judge, I’m not sure it will hold up on Judgment Day. In the cases where drivers were actually suspected of drug trafficking or were found to be in possession of drugs, either their sentences were reduced or their charges were dropped in exchange for the cash that the cop confiscated. So, they didn’t care about the drugs. They just wanted the money.
However, in most of these cases where blacks and Latinos were pulled over and were forced to hand over their cash, there was no evidence of criminal behavior, and the motorists weren’t even charged with a crime. The police just wanted to use asset forfeiture laws to steal large amounts of money. In some cases, police threatened to take away the parents’ kids and hand them over to Child Protective Services unless the parents gave up their cash. Talk about highway robbery.
And what did they spend all their “drug money” on? A new police station and bonuses for “high revenue-generating” officers. And also a popcorn machine and lots of candy.
Shelby County officials are now having to return about $100,000 to motorists following criminal investigations into this “drug enforcement program.” While that’s a step forward, they need to give all the money back that belonged to innocent motorists, no matter what color their skin is. And since they stole it, they should have to pay back several times the amount they stole.