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The Houston Chronicle reports:

Authorities in a Texas town under investigation for allegedly shaking down motorists for their cash sometimes used the travelers’ children as bargaining chips in their attempt to seize money, records show.

Documents reviewed by The Associated Press describe the extent to which children became pawns as authorities in Tenaha, a town near the Louisiana border, accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars through highway traffic stops that have since sparked a federal investigation.

“They basically said, ‘If you all want to leave without going to jail tonight and take your kids with you, then you’ll sign over your money right now,’” Jennifer Boatright, a Houston mother of two, said in an interview describing her encounter with local officials.

The Justice Department has been investigating authorities in Tenaha and Shelby County since they were named in a 2008 class action lawsuit alleging that a drug interdiction program initiated by the town of 1,160 was in fact a scheme to seize cash. The suit asserted that innocent motorists, most of them black or ethnic minorities, were stopped on U.S. Highway 59 and threatened with money laundering charges if they didn’t agree to forfeit their cash.

The AP reported last October that more than $800,000 was collected from the traffic stops in less than a year and that, in some cases, motorists who fit the profile of drug traffickers received leniency in exchange for their cash.

The involvement of children adds another element to a case that has especially troubled critics of civil asset forfeiture laws. Those laws allow authorities to seize cash or other property if they believe it’s linked to criminal activity, even in cases where defendants aren’t found guilty.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of this story involves Tehana deputy police chief Barry Washington:

Washington, who is black, said in a deposition that he received at least $20,000 in bonuses from the forfeiture funds.

The former Texas state trooper said God, speaking to him through a beam of light, told him to take the position in Tenaha and directed him to stop drug traffickers on U.S. Highway 59.

“I swore an oath to God that I would get out there and give him all that I have in what I do, and so that’s the way I do it,” he testified.

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