Police in Tenaha, Texas allegedly pulled over motorists–mostly black and Latino–passing through town for petty traffic violations and then shook them down for their cash and property, using forfeiture and vague drug laws to give the scam the patina of legality. The victims of these abuses will be allowed to sue some of those involved in a class action lawsuit:
United States District Judge T. John Ward filed his decision on Monday to certify a lawsuit alleging an illegal interdiction program by various Tenaha and Shelby County officials as class action. It wasn’t long afterwards that plaintiff’s attorney Tim Garrigan got requests for interviews…
Court documents show thousands of dollars were kept by the City of Tenaha and Shelby County District Attorney Lynda K. Russell. It’s even alleged that Russell spent the money for personal items and causes.
Defendants include former assistant city marshall Barry Washington. He began the interdiction program in 2006. Washington testified that God “ordained” him to patrol Highway 59, and that God gave him the gift of being able to put crooks in jail. When Washington resigned the stops suddenly went away. The judge made note of that fact in his ruling.
Some people stopped on Highway 59 and then detained eventually lawyered up. When that happened, the heat would go away.
“The charges never materialized,” said Garrigan. Several specific circumstances are listed in the judges decision to explain the ruling. It’s just a fraction of the evidence leading to the judge granting class action certification.
“Hopefully it will result in a declaration that their program has been unconstitutional and a court order preventing them from continuing that program,” explained Garrigan.
Monetary relief is more difficult for plaintiffs.
“They’re gong to have to file a separate case,” said Garrigan. It’s something necessary, due to a Supreme Court ruling on a civil rights case against Wal Mart. “Where they have said, basically, where there are claims of discrimination, it’s too difficult to determine what each class member should get in monetary relief,” said Garrigan.
The Nacogdoches attorney, who worked with attorneys David Guillory and Stephanie Stephens, fully expects at least some of the plaintiffs will pursue individual lawsuits.
For now, the opportunity for change is considered the most significant achievement.
“It’s a major benefit to society, as a whole, is going to be to shut the program down and hopefully send the message out that these highway robbery interdiction programs aren’t acceptable,” stated Garrigan.
It’s unfortunate that the victims face so many obstacles to compensation, and even if the court declares Tenaha’s program unconstitutional, Texas’s forfeiture laws cry out for statutory reforms. Nevertheless, this is a step forward–hopefully the first of many.