Civil Asset Forfeiture

DA Accused of Stealing Money From Motorists Wants To Defend Herself With Money She's Accused of Stealing From Motorists

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The little town of Tenaha, Texas has been all over the news in the last year after several defense attorneys revealed the town's police had been pulling over motorists along a main highway, seizing their property (cars, cash, jewelry, etc.), then presenting them with an unsavory bargain: Sign a waiver forfeiting all of their property over to the police, or be arrested for drug crimes where, even if innocent, they'd face a night or more in jail and attorney and court fees that would usually amount to more than what the property was worth.

One defense attorney found that of 200 seizures made by Tenaha police between and 2008, just 50 were ever criminally charged. That's actually about average for forfeiture cases. It's the bargain Tenaha police struck with motorists, nearly of them black, that's illegal.

Tenaha's police department and Shelby County District Attorney Lynda K. Russell—who used forfeiture funds to pay for a Christmas party and to buy tickets to a motorcycle rally—are now subject to a federal civil rights investigation and a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of motorists by the ACLU of Texas.

Here's the crazy part: Russell is attempting to use proceeds from the county's forfeiture fund to pay for her legal defense. That is, she wants to raid the fund she's accused of stealing from motorists to fund in order ot defend herself from accusations that she stole from motorists to fund it. The ultimate irony here is that when law enforcement officials freeze a suspect's assets in anticipation of a drug prosecution, the suspect isn't allowed to use any of those assets to pay for his own legal defense.

The ACLU of Texas is asking the state attorney general to block Russell.