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Municipal Thieves: Police Agencies in Texas Stealing Property from People Who Haven’t Even Been Charged with Criminal Activity

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A two-decade-old state law that grants authorities the power to seize
property used in crimes is wielded by some agencies against people who
never are charged with — much less convicted of — criminal activity.

Law enforcement authorities in this East Texas town of 1,000 people
seized property from at least 140 motorists between 2006 and 2008,
and, to date, filed criminal charges against fewer than half,
according to a review of court documents by the San Antonio Express-News.

Virtually anything of value was up for grabs: cash, cell phones,
personal jewelry, a pair of sneakers, and often, the very car that was
being driven through town.

Some affidavits filed by officers relied on the presence of seemingly
innocuous property as the only evidence that a crime had occurred.

Linda Dorman, an Akron, Ohio, great-grandmother had $4,000 in cash
taken from her by local authorities when she was stopped while driving
through town after visiting Houston in April 2007. Court records make
no mention that anything illegal was found in her van. She’s still
hoping for the return of what she calls “her life savings.”

Dorman’s attorney, David Guillory, calls the roadside stops and
seizures in Tenaha “highway piracy,” undertaken by a couple of law
enforcement officers whose agencies get to keep most of what was seized.

Guillory is suing officials in Tenaha and Shelby County on behalf of
Dorman and nine other clients whose property was confiscated. All were
African-Americans driving either rentals or vehicles with out-of-state

Guillory alleges in the lawsuit that while his clients were detained,
they were presented with an ultimatum: waive your rights to your
property in exchange for a promise to be released and not be
criminally charged.

He said most did as Dorman did, signing the waiver to avoid jail.

The state’s asset seizure law doesn’t require that law enforcement
agencies file criminal charges in civil forfeiture cases. It requires
only a preponderance of evidence that the property was used in the
commission of certain crimes, such as drug crimes, or bought with
proceeds of those crimes.

That’s a lesser burden than is required in a criminal case. And it
allows police departments and prosecutors to divvy up what they get
from such seizures — what critics say is a built-in incentive for
unscrupulous, underfinanced law enforcement agencies to illegally
strip motorists of their property.

Some lawmakers, fed up with calls from irate constituents, say enough
is enough. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate
Criminal Justice Committee, said the state’s asset forfeiture law is
being abused by enough jurisdictions across the state that he wants to
rewrite major sections of it this year.

“The idea that people lose their property but are never charged and
never get it back, that’s theft as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, believes some law enforcement
agencies in his cash-strapped district in the Rio Grande Valley have
become so dependent on the profitable seizures that they routinely
misapply the state’s civil forfeiture law.

“In a lot of cases, they’re more focused on trying to find the money
than in trying to find the drugs,” he said.

That means law enforcement agencies in the Valley tend to target
vehicles heading south into Mexico rather than northbound cars,
Hinojosa said, because the southbound vehicles are more likely to be
transporting cash — the profits from the drug trade — as opposed to
just the drugs.

In 2008, three years after stripping a man of $10,032 in cash as he
drove south along U.S. 281 to buy a headstone for his dying aunt, Jim
Wells County officials returned the man’s money — and the county then
paid him $110,000 in damages as part of a settlement. Attorney Malcolm
Greenstein said criminal charges never were filed against his client,
Javier Gonzalez, nor any of the dozens of people whose records he
reviewed. People were given the option of going to jail or signing a
waiver, Greenstein said. Like Gonzalez, most signed the waiver.


Written by Michael Cooper

February 9, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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