Highway Robbery


Asset forfeiture outrages have been generating great copy for 20 years. The public gets angry, and maybe a few people spotlighted in the local newspaper investigation get some portion of the property back.  But then it's back to business as usual, at least until the next report.

The latest investigation comes from the San Antonio Express-News, which looked into the lucrative forfeiture practices of the town of Tenaha, Texas. The paper found that though the tiny town of 1,000 seized property from 140 motorists between 2006 and 2008, less than half were charged with an actual crime.

…David Guillory calls the roadside stops and seizures in Tenaha "highway piracy," undertaken by a couple of law enforcement officers whose agencies get to keep most of what was seized.

Guillory is suing officials in Tenaha and Shelby County on behalf of Dorman and nine other clients whose property was confiscated. All were African-Americans driving either rentals or vehicles with out-of-state plates.

Guillory alleges in the lawsuit that while his clients were detained, they were presented with an ultimatum: waive your rights to your property in exchange for a promise to be released and not be criminally charged.

In one case, they threatened to toss a great-grandmother in a jail cell on drug charges unless she signed over the $4,000 she says were her life savings that police found in her car. According to the Express-News, court records make no mention of any evidence she committed a crime.

It's not difficult to see why someone would sign such an agreement, given that fighting even bogus charges could end up costing more than the value of the property the government is seizing.

Tenaha's mayor makes no apologies:

Tenaha Mayor George Bowers, 80, defended the seizures, saying they allowed a cash-poor city the means to add a second police car in a two-policeman town and help pay for a new police station.

"It's always helpful to have any kind of income to expand your police force," Bowers said.

Apparently even if you have to steal it at gunpoint.