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Lawsuit: Texas town stops minorities, seizes property

  • Story Highlights
  • Lawsuit, filed in federal court, seeks class action status
  • It alleges minorities are targeted for car stops in Tenaha, Texas
  • Assets seized, minorities threatened with prosecution, suit says
  • Officials in Tenaha say route is favored by drug traffickers
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(CNN) -- Officials in the tiny east Texas town of Tenaha are accused in a federal lawsuit of stopping African-Americans driving through town and seizing their money and property by threatening them with criminal prosecution -- or worse.

Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Witt says local police say they are operating within the law.

Tenaha, Texas, has about 1,000 residents and is about 60 miles southwest of Shreveport, Louisiana.

Among the plaintiffs are two African-Americans who claim they forfeited more than $50,000 under threat of money-laundering charges, and a biracial couple who gave up more than $6,000 after officials threatened to put their children in foster care. No one was charged with a crime.

The lawsuit, filed in July 2008, has 10 plaintiffs, said attorney Timothy Garrigan, one of the attorneys who filed the suit. But he told CNN Wednesday that "we get more inquiries every day." Attorneys are seeking class-action status for the suit, he said.

The suit names as defendants Tenaha's mayor and deputy city marshal, plus several Shelby County officials, including the district attorney. It alleges that the officials "have developed an illegal 'stop and seize' practice of targeting, stopping, detaining, searching and often seizing property from apparently non-white citizens and those traveling with non-white citizens." Video Watch Garrigan explain the lawsuit »

"The defendants undertake this practice without legal justification, in violation of the citizens' rights, not for any legitimate law enforcement purpose but to enrich their offices and perhaps themselves, by seizing and converting cash and other valuable personal property they can find during the course of the illegal stop and seize practice," the suit claims.

City and county officials, however, maintain they are doing their jobs along the highway through Tenaha. They say the road is a known route for drug traffickers between Shreveport, Louisiana, and Houston, Texas, according to The Chicago Tribune, which first reported on the lawsuit Tuesday. Tenaha, which had just more than 1,000 residents in the 2000 census, is about 60 miles southwest of Shreveport.

"The police and local district attorney there say they're operating within the law, and it appears as if they are," said Howard Witt, the Tribune reporter who wrote the story. "Texas has an asset forfeiture law similar to many other states, and it basically allows police to seize assets [that] are used, or suspected in being used, in commission of a crime."

The law as it currently exists does not mandate that a person be convicted of a crime or even charged with one before the police can seize the assets, Witt said. A bill was introduced Tuesday in the state Legislature to close that loophole, he said, because of the alleged goings-on in Tenaha.

"We are in the business of enforcing the law," Tenaha Mayor George Bowers told CNN in a written statement. "We send our officers to school and train them well. All we've done is enforced the law."

In court documents filed responding to the suit, several defendants have denied some allegations and said they did not have knowledge of others. Each maintained they were doing their jobs.

Garrigan told CNN the plaintiffs he represents are not drug traffickers, and their criminal histories contain "nothing that would suggest it was appropriate for them to be pulled over and robbed this way by police."

"Typically, these people are stopped, no drugs are found and only their money and valuables are taken," he said. "We don't think they should be able to get away with that."

He said he didn't know if the route was known for drug trafficking, but "I don't think that justifies what they've done."

The suit's plaintiffs all were traveling through Tenaha in rental vehicles or in cars with out-of-state license plates, according to the suit. In each case, they were stopped and ordered out of their cars. In some cases, officials searched their cars. But all the plaintiffs claim they were asked if they had any money, and coerced into giving up cash, cell phones and other property.

All of the plaintiffs were threatened with arrest and prosecution for money laundering. The couple, Jennifer Boatright and Ronald Henderson, were threatened with another charge concerning their children.

Boatright told the Tribune that police stopped them for driving in a left-turn lane. During a search, she said, police found a gift for Boatright's sister, an unused glass pipe similar to those used to smoke marijuana.

No drugs were found, but police seized the $6,037 the couple was carrying to buy a car. After they contacted an attorney, the city returned the money, but offered no explanation or apology, she said.

"It was give them the money or they were taking our kids," she said. "They suggested that we never bring it up again. We figured we better give them our cash and get the hell out of there."

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In 1997 Louisiana lawmakers reformed that state's asset forfeiture law after a report on NBC's "Dateline" alleged that law enforcement officers in Calcasieu and Jefferson Davis parishes were stopping motorists without cause, particularly out-of-state drivers and minorities, along Interstate 10 and seizing their money and property from them, according to an article on the National Drug Strategy Network's Web site.

The television show used hidden cameras to record such incidents, the article said.

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