Police in the small town of Tenaha, Tx., allegedly have found a way to strip motorists, many of them black, of their property without ever charging them with a crime. The Chicago Tribune reports that they offer out-of-towners a grim choice: voluntarily sign over your belongings to the town, or face felony charges of money laundering or other serious crimes. More than 140 people reluctantly accepted that deal from June 2006 to June 2008. Among them were a black grandmother from Akron, who surrendered $4,000 in cash after Tenaha police pulled her over, and an interracial couple from Houston, who gave up more than $6,000 after police threatened to seize their children and put them into foster care, court documents show.
Officials in Tenaha, located on a heavily traveled highway connecting Houston with popular gambling destinations in Louisiana, say they are engaged in a battle against drug trafficking and call the search-and-seizure practice a legitimate use of the state’s asset-forfeiture law. That law permits local police agencies to keep drug money and other property used in the commission of a crime and add the proceeds to their budgets. Civil rights lawyers call Tenaha’s practice highway robbery. They have filed a federal class-action lawsuit to stop what they contend is an unconstitutional perversion of the law’s intent, aimed at blacks who have done nothing wrong.