Imagine you were driving down a highway, minding your own business, possibly even listening to some Kelly Clarkson on the radio (or not, it’s your imagination), when the police pulled you over, held you without charge and took away your car, your cash, your grandmother’s pearls and any other valuables you might happen to have on you at the time in exchange for not charging you with money laundering, drug trafficking or worse.
Well, if you are an African-American tourist traveling through the Tenaha district of Texas, that might be a reality. And the ironic part is, it’s technically lawful.
Between June 2006 and June 2008 approximately 200 people were stopped by the police and more than 140 of them were made to accept deals to hand over their goods in exchange for not facing serious felony charges, charges that the police had no evidence to support.
This behavior became that endemic that the police were writing out the forms before even stopping people. And those that were stopped? Well, they included an elderly black grandmother, Linda Dorkman, who had $4000 taken from her, and a mixed-race couple from Houston who were threatened with the removal of their children into foster care if they didn’t comply.
The Tenaha officers in question testify that they are part of an ongoing battle against lawlessness along the highly trafficked route between Houston and Louisiana, facing drug deals and gambling rings, and as such must make use of the state’s asset-forfeiture law, which basically means they can legally stop you, search your belongings and keep drug money and other goods procured by or intended for use in criminal activities, to stop the flow of illegal activity through the quiet little town.
This money then goes into the police department’s coffers, and, in some cases, pays wages, which seems to have proven too much of a tempting income stream to waste on catching just real criminals.
Senator John Whitmore has called it “theft”, whilst the attorney who filed the lawsuit, David Guillory, said that he was dismayed to have tracked down a proportion of those arrested only to discover a disproportionate number of them were black. A federal lawsuit is now underway and a bill has been put through the senate to change the asset-forfeiture law to make officers more accountable.
The town’s Mayor, George Bowers, defended the police force and their actions, claiming that the force needs money and that the law had, in the past, helped them buy a second police car. “It’s always helpful to have any kind of income to expand your police force,” Bowers replied when asked about the civil forfeiture law. At the rate they were going though, I would have thought the police were going for a private jet, what with one local constable, Randy Whatley, depositing an impressive $115,000 to the pot.
Although the Chicago Tribune is now reporting this story, the original article, resplendent with clearer facts and more detailed analysis of the case, can be found in the Houston Chronicle archives here.
It is worth noting that not all these cases were entirely unwarranted. The Chicago Tribune makes light of the fact that one couple stopped had a “small glass pipe” that, although unused, was clearly for marijuana, and over $6000 worth of cash in the car that they claimed they were using to purchase another “used car”. That said, the police made them sign over the goods without attempting to get a conviction or even make an arrest, possibly stretching the elasticity of the asset-forfeiture law to its absolute maximum. When the couple complained through an attorney, their money was returned.
This comes just a day after we reported the ongoing investigation into the NYPD entrapping gay men outside of adult video stores and the city then using it as a reason to close the buildings and sell off property.
It seems pertinent to raise the question, what happens when those hired to protect and serve, serve only to steal away our property, our dignity and our rights? What stands out in this case isn’t the theft of property, but the inference that the officers backhandedly made in stopping a majority of black drivers. It panders to dangerous racial stereotypes and utilizes profiling that our society should now be long since past.
On a wider scale it makes common thieves of not only the police officers, but the entire hierarchy in Tenaha. So who polices the police when they abuse their power?
Well, I suppose that’s down to us and communities like Care2. Thanks for caring.