Officials in Shelby County, Texas, which borders on Louisiana, agreed to return $100,000 to victims of asset forfeiture abuse this week. Police in Tenaha, an East Texas town of 1,160, seized an estimated $3 million from motorists between 2006 and 2008.
Police detained over 140 drivers—overwhelmingly minorities with out-of-state tags—for minor (and probably made-up) infractions. At the police station, people were presented with a choice: Sign a pre-notarized statement releasing cash, vehicles, jewelry, and other personal possessions to the police or go to jail—often hundreds of miles from home. On more than one occasion, parents were told that their children would be placed into foster care.
Though some of the drivers were trafficking illegal drugs, the police were also happy to prey on totally innocent people who happened to be traveling with something of value. Roderick Daniels was pulled over for going 37 mph in a 35 mph zone and relieved of $8,500 he planned to use to buy a new car. Via CNN.com:
"They asked me, 'What you are doing with this ring on?' I said I had bought that ring. I paid good money for that ring," Daniels said. "He took the ring off my finger and put it on his finger and told me how did it look. He put on my jewelry."
…Maryland resident Amanee Busbee said she also was threatened with losing custody of her child after being stopped in Tenaha with her fiancé and his business partner. They were headed to Houston with $50,000 to complete the purchase of a restaurant, she said.
"The police officer would say things to me like, 'Your son is going to child protective services because you are not saying what we need to hear,' " Busbee said.
In most cases, no one was ever charged with a crime.
According to the ACLU, which settled a class action lawsuit in August, officials used the forfeiture proceedings for personal gain and to pad their budgets. The settlement requires the city and county to follow better forfeiture procedures. Officers can no longer use dogs during traffic stops, for instance. Police can only donate the proceeds to nonprofits—or use them for audio or radio equipment or training.
A Department of Justice civil rights investigation that began in 2008 is still pending. According to the Associated Press, some of the forfeited property is unaccounted for.
See more Reason coverage of outrageous asset forfeiture abuse.