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Police And Are Thieves

Stop whatever you’re doing and read Sarah Stillman’s New Yorker piece on civil forfeiture. [1]I read it last night, and found myself slack-jawed that this actually goes on in the United States of America. In many places, the police are using laws designed to help them advance the drug war to confiscate property from ordinary citizens who haven’t been charged with anything. Here’s what happened to a Houston couple driving to see the woman’s father, where they intended to buy a used car with cash. They made the mistake of driving through the little town of Teneha, which, it turns out, has a racket in stopping innocent people and stealing their stuff. Here’s how it works:

Were there any drugs in the car? When Henderson and Boatright said no, the officer asked if he and his partner could search the car.

The officers found the couple’s cash and a marbled-glass pipe that Boatright said was a gift for her sister-in-law, and escorted them across town to the police station. In a corner there, two tables were heaped with jewelry, DVD players, cell phones, and the like. According to the police report, Boatright and Henderson fit the profile of drug couriers: they were driving from Houston, “a known point for distribution of illegal narcotics,” to Linden, “a known place to receive illegal narcotics.” The report describes their children as possible decoys, meant to distract police as the couple breezed down the road, smoking marijuana. (None was found in the car, although Washington claimed to have smelled it.)

The county’s district attorney, a fifty-seven-year-old woman with feathered Charlie’s Angels hair named Lynda K. Russell, arrived an hour later. Russell, who moonlighted locally as a country singer, told Henderson and Boatright that they had two options. They could face felony charges for “money laundering” and “child endangerment,” in which case they would go to jail and their children would be handed over to foster care. Or they could sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha, and get back on the road. “No criminal charges shall be filed,” a waiver she drafted read, “and our children shall not be turned over to CPS,” or Child Protective Services.

“Where are we?” Boatright remembers thinking. “Is this some kind of foreign country, where they’re selling people’s kids off?” Holding her sixteen-month-old on her hip, she broke down in tears.

Though it happens a lot in Tenaha [2] — through which you never, ever should drive — but it by no means only happens in Tenaha. It happens all over our country. The idea behind it is this:

The basic principle behind asset forfeiture is appealing. It enables authorities to confiscate cash or property obtained through illicit means, and, in many states, funnel the proceeds directly into the fight against crime. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, cops drive a Cadillac Escalade stencilled with the words “this used to be a drug dealer’s car, now it’s ours!” In Monroe, North Carolina, police recently proposed using forty-four thousand dollars in confiscated drug money to buy a surveillance drone, which might be deployed to catch fleeing suspects, conduct rescue missions, and, perhaps, seize more drug money. Hundreds of state and federal laws authorize forfeiture for cockfighting, drag racing, basement gambling, endangered-fish poaching, securities fraud, and countless other misdeeds.

In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.

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The problem is these laws allow the police to assume that you’re guilty until proven innocent. And when you lack the legal resources to challenge these seizures, you are out of luck. These cases disproportionately fall on the poor and minorities. Stillman tells of an outrageous story from Philadelphia in which the authorities seized the house of an elderly, sick, inner-city black couple whose adult son, living with them, was arrested for selling pot from the front porch. There’s another story about a Hispanic Pentecostal churchman, an alien in this country legally, who was pulled over in Virginia. There was no contraband in the car, and the church secretary was not charged with any crime. But the officer seized $28,000 in cash the churchman was going to use on that journey to buy property for his congregation. From the story:

“We could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the money was church money from parishioners’ donations,” David Smith, who was a deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office during the Reagan Administration and now defends the policy’s targets pro bono, told me last January. Only after he intervened were the funds returned. “But these were people who didn’t have the means to fight back. They weren’t well-to-do. They didn’t know any senators or congressmen, they weren’t citizens. They had no voice.”

The corruption comes in large part, Stillman shows, by the law allowing local police forces to keep most or all of the assets they’ve seized. This provides an incentive for cops to grab as much as they can. Stillman reports that many cash-strapped police departments depend on this highway robbery to fund their operations.

Please, read the whole thing [3]. If you think you are immune to this kind of abuse by the state, think again. Remember, these people did nothing wrong — and still, they got robbed by the police, in a way that’s legal.

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62 Comments (Open | Close)

62 Comments To "Police And Are Thieves"

#1 Comment By JohnE_o On August 7, 2013 @ 8:14 am

Good of you to notice and write about this, Rod – it has been going on for decades, but doesn’t usually happen your circles, I guess.

#2 Comment By J.C. Marrero On August 7, 2013 @ 9:04 am

To Hattio:

DOJ also has an Office of International Affairs which is not set up to monitor Madame Bovary scenarios.

#3 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On August 7, 2013 @ 9:20 am

I have to +1 to Geoff Guth’s excellent post. I will add that Bell California provides another example of corruption at the local level.

#4 Comment By JamesP On August 7, 2013 @ 9:45 am

This is tangential to the topic, but this kind of stuff in all its forms is why I cringe when I hear the Pledge of Allegiance. After invoking God, we lie about “liberty and justice for all.” It needs some kind of qualifier like “I pledge to defend liberty and justice for all.”

#5 Comment By theOtherWill On August 7, 2013 @ 10:39 am

‘Love the Junior Murvin/Clash reference.

#6 Comment By Floridan On August 7, 2013 @ 10:53 am

This has been going on for quite some time — it was a major news story in South Florida maybe 15 – 20 years ago.

Way too many flaws in the concept, starting with the police departments having a financial incentive to make confiscations.

#7 Comment By Greg On August 7, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

This is why I always want to start screaming when I hear or read about “freedom-loving Texas”. I lived recently in Dallas for three years and it was the closest thing to a police state that I have ever run across in my life. I have now lived in 8 different states, and Texas is the only place where, after a night at a bar, I decided I had had enough and while walking home was stopped randomly by the police, who smelled liquor on me, and gave me a citation for public intoxication. Yes, I got a ticket for “Walking Home Under The Influence”. I was not bothering anyone, I was not vandalizing anything, I was not urinating on someone’s lawn. I was ONE BLOCK from my house on my way home to call it a night. This was right after I had moved there, and I only learned later that not only do Dallas police routinely hand out this type of citation, but Texas law allows them to go into a privately owned bar or restaurant and hand out citations for public intoxication, so basically, you can get a $400 fine for being drunk in a bar. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. I had neighbors whose cars were seized because the cop “smelled” pot in the car, friends who had to do community service for drinking a beer on their front porch (unlawful open alcohol in public) and much, much more. Texas is not “free” in any sense of the word, and I find it hard to understand the Libertarian/Conservative fascination with it.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On August 7, 2013 @ 1:21 pm

Like JohnE says, its been going on for decades. Two reforms that have been around for years without any well connected people in high places taking an intersest:

1) Have the proceeds of legitimate confiscations go anywhere but the department that made the seizure, e.g., to pay down the national debt (but don’t let that apply to Detroit, the cops there would go hog wild).

2) Impose an innocent until proven guilty standard: the police have to prove, at least by clear and convincing evidence, that the property was actually used in the commission of a crime, with the knowledge and consent of its owner.

However, in the Tenaha episode above, it wasn’t even a confiscation of property used in a crime. It was naked solicitation of a payoff to avoid criminal prosecution of the couple who had not in fact committed a crime, but were going to be charged with one.

#9 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 7, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

Texas is not “free” in any sense of the word, and I find it hard to understand the Libertarian/Conservative fascination with it.

Low taxes, y’all.

#10 Comment By Another Matt On August 7, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

I would like to point one thing out, though. The main officer in Tenaha responsible for these seizures, Barry Washington, was quoted thus:

He’d been lying in bed one night in Carthage, soon after leaving his old job, when he looked up to see a light burst through his bedroom ceiling. “And it’s like I’m in a trance,” he later recalled. “And God tells me, ‘Go to Tenaha, Texas.’ And I get up the next day, and I laugh about it, until I find out that God may be serious, so I end up in Tenaha.”

and:

“There’s a good side and a bad side, and the good side will always win,” he told me. “Jesus knows who’s done what, and what was fair and what was unfair. And I would never do anything to embarrass Him. And that’s it. That’s the end of the story.”

This is something I’d been trying to point out in some previous threads — once someone believes God has called them on a special mission, they need never worry that they might be doing something wrong while on that mission. I’ve seen this kind of thing countless times growing up, and I think this subsumption of conscience to metaphysical certainty is the worst feature of religion, when and where it arises.

#11 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On August 7, 2013 @ 11:32 pm

Its easy to keep taxes low when the cops are on the take.

(By the way, this story cries out for an update… has there been any investigation under way? Are journalists descending on the town? Is the U.S. Department of Justice?)

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On August 8, 2013 @ 11:23 pm

I read the entire article. Its as riveting as the piece a few years ago on the Cameron Todd Willingham frame-up (which had fatal results). I was struck by this quote from the man in charge of the highway robbery operation in Tenaha:

Although Washington declined to be interviewed at any length for this story, he did say that he “provided a great service to this nation,” and stressed the importance of taking drug trafficking seriously. “There’s a good side and a bad side, and the good side will always win,” he told me. “Jesus knows who’s done what, and what was fair and what was unfair. And I would never do anything to embarrass Him. And that’s it. That’s the end of the story.”

I can easily say after reading that “I’ll be looking forward to seeing you sent among the goats, Mr. Washington.” But when you talk about public expressions of faith, this is ONE of the manifestations you get. I’m sure there are lots of sincere Christians in Texas, as there are in any state, but this guy gives the faith a real black eye.

Its worth noting every time this comes up, that giving the police the proceeds of the seizures is the root of the corruption. And score one for Southern integrity: North Carolina reportedly bans this kind of seizures, period.