Small Town Texas Cops Accused of Highway Robbery
May 6, 2009
(ChattahBox)—Something is amiss in the tiny backwater town of Tenaha, Texas, bordering Louisiana with barely 1,000 residents, encompassing an area of just 4 square miles that motorists passing through on U.S. highway 84, can miss in the blink of an eye, and many wished they had. Because, you see, there are a gang of highway robbers and modern-day pirates loose on the dusty roads of Tenaha, stopping mostly black and Latino, out of town motorists and shaking them down for their money, valuables and even their cars. And these highway outlaws just happen to be members of the Tenaha police department.
A federal class-action lawsuit filed by David Guillory, a local attorney from Nacogdoches is accusing the small town police officers and the district attorney of Tenaha of illegally stopping and detaining black and Latino motorists and offering them the impossible choice of being charged with a felony crime, or turning over all of their money and valuables to the Tenaha police department.
The lawsuit contends the Tenaha police and the district attorney “have developed an illegal ‘stop and seize’ practice of targeting, stopping, detaining, searching, and often seizing property from apparently nonwhite citizens and those traveling with nonwhite citizens.”
The class-action lawsuit details the police shake down of hundreds of victims, having had the misfortune of driving while black in Tenahan, from 2006 to 2008. The original lawsuit was brought in 2008 and represented 10 victims of the Tenaha Highway bandits, but attorney David Guillory says so many other victims came forward, he expanded the original suit to a class-action lawsuit.
The Tenaha police department has been getting away with its alleged highway banditry by misusing the state’s asset-forfeiture law, which allows police to keep drug money and other property used in the commission of a crime and add the proceeds to their police budgets. But apparently, the small town police officers of Tenaha forgot portions of the law requiring that a crime must first be committed. Oh, and the part of the law that requires police to return any seized property, if no criminal charges are brought.
George Bowers, mayor of the town contends the law is properly enforced, but the victims say otherwise. Consider the story of a Tennessee man, named Roderick Daniels who says he was pulled over on Highway 59, right outside of Tenaha on a beautiful fall day in 2007, for driving 2 miles over the speed limit.
After a search, police discovered he was carrying $8,500 in cash that he intended to use to purchase a used car in East Texas. Daniels was also sporting an expensive looking ring that the police were apparently coveting, so they hauled Daniels to the jailhouse and threatened him with a felony charge of money laundering, unless he turned signed forfeiture papers handing over his property and his cash to the police department.
Another case detailed in the lawsuit, describes the Tenaha police pulling over a multiracial couple, Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson along with their two children, for driving “too close” to the white line and hauled them off to jail after finding the couple were also in possession of nearly $6,000, they had withdrawn to purchase a used car. Locked up in a jail cell, the police and the District Attorney, Lynda Russell threatened to charge them with a crime and take their children away and place them in child protective services, unless they signed a paper turning over their cash and property to the police department.
The document signed by Russell, illustrates the Tenaha shakedown in stark terms stating: that in exchange for forfeiting the cash, “no criminal charges shall be filed … and our children shall not be turned over” to the state’s child protective services agency.
Attorney David Guillory, estimates authorities in Tenaha seized nearly $3 million between 2006 and 2008, and in 150 of those cases, virtually all of the seizures were improper and involved people of color. It seems the Tenaha police, like any predator, honed in on vulnerable out-of-towners, who had money or valuables the police wanted for themselves and stripped them clean.
Money and property legitimately seized under Texas’ forfeiture law, requires the money to be used for law enforcement purposes. However, law enforcement officials in Tenaha used the money to purchase a popcorn machine, donated thousands to a youth baseball league and a Baptist Church, and also cut a check for $10,000 to officer Barry Washington for “investigative costs.”
Since the lawsuit was filed, it has brought much needed attention to the practices of Texas law enforcement officers, improperly using the state’s forfeiture laws. Texas State Senator John Whitmire calls the actions of the Tenaha police department thievery, and plans to introduce new legislation to plug up the loopholes in the forfeiture law, calling for a new law requiring police departments to hold a court hearing before someone’s property is seized.
Senator Whitmire told CNN, “To have law enforcement and the district attorney essentially be crooks, in my judgment, should infuriate and does infuriate everyone,” Whitmire said.
The lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court and was filed not only against the Tenaha police department and the District Attorney, but also the town’s mayor, George Bowers.
Meanwhile, the alleged highway banditry of Tenaha law officials is on hold, and once again, motorists can safely pass through the sleepy town unmolested, with boarded up storefronts and a City Hall building with broken windows, and breathe a sigh of relief once they cross over the border to the gambling casinos of Louisina, with their cash and valuables intact.