The Huffington Post has a followup to last week’s ACLU-led victory in the class action lawsuit against Tenaha and Shelby County law officials over abusive forfeiture practices that led to the seizure of over $3 million from unwary drivers passing through East Texas:
“This was, plain and simple, highway robbery,” said Elora Mukherjee, a New York-based attorney at the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “The facts in Tenaha were some of the worst cases of racial profiling abuses of asset forfeiture that we have seen around the country.”
In Texas and several other states, law enforcement agencies may seize crime-linked cash and valuables and may sometimes use the proceeds for policing. In Tenaha, law enforcement agencies used the money for equipment and salary increases, according to the suit.
Both city and county officials in the Teneha area have denied wrongdoing. They agreed to pay nearly $600,000 in legal fees and to have officers record all traffic stops. Under the terms of the settlement, the proceeds of property and cash seizures must be used to purchase audio and video recording equipment for traffic stops, to fund racial profiling education or given to nonprofit agencies, Mukherjee said. A court-appointed monitor will examine the seizure spending four times each year.
“In my heart of hearts, I really do not believe that there was any kind of profiling going on,” said Rick Campbell, the Shelby County judge who oversees county agencies and helps manage the county budget. But even if the county had won the case, legal costs alone would neared $1.5 million and devastated the local budget, Campbell said.
Many of the city and county officials named in the suit are no longer in office. The Shelby County constable who stopped Agonstini and the district attorney have resigned. A district attorney’s office investigator named in the suit has retired. Voters in June turned Tenaha’s mayor out of office after 48 years, ending the term of the longest-serving mayor in Texas history.
Campbell was appointed to the county’s top administrative job in 2009, after the county judge who served during the height of seizure activity on Highway 59 died of cancer.
Campbell said he stands behind the stops. At least 70 percent of the stops involved white drivers, he said. The officer who stopped Agostini and many others on Highway 59 was experienced in another part of the state, where he never got into trouble, Campbell said.
“I do feel like peace officers, when they are out there, need to be able to bring common sense to their work,” said Campbell. “I mean when you look, most inmates in the jail aren’t white. … There were stops where people had $600,000 in the car, but they weren’t buying drugs?”
The officer testified under oath why he suspected some drivers were involved in criminal activity. He said he suspected Puerto Rican drivers or passengers from New York stopped during the middle of the week and who seemed nervous when questioned.
Most of those who surrendered money were carrying smaller sums than was Agostini, according to the suit. And most were black or Latino, according to the ACLU’s Mukherjee. From 2006 to 2008, officers seized at least $3 million from more than 140 cases, according to the ACLU.