A two-decade-old state law that grants authorities the power to seize property used in a crime is wielded by some agencies against people who are never charged with, much less convicted, of a crime.
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 San Antonio Express-News review of court documents.
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, a great-grandmother from Akron, Ohio, 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 and show no criminal charges filed in the case. She is still waiting 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 is seized.
Guillory is suing officials in Tenaha and Shelby County on behalf of Dorman and nine other clients who were stripped of their property. All were African-Americans driving either rentals or vehicles with out-of-state plates.
Tenaha Mayor George Bowers, 80, defended the seizures, saying they allowed a cash-poor city the means to add a second police car in a two-policeman town and help pay for a new police station. "It's always helpful to have any kind of income to expand your police force," Bowers said.
Local police, he said, must take aggressive action to stem the drug trade that flows through town via U.S. 59. "No doubt about it. (Highway 59) is a thoroughfare that a lot of no-good people travel on. They take the drugs and sell it and take the money and go right back into Mexico," said Bowers, who has been Tenaha's mayor for 54 years.
Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos said the state's forfeiture law, which last year put millions in the coffers of local law enforcement agencies, including hers, takes some of the profit out of crime. "These ill-gotten gains are used to further the aims of law enforcement and public safety," she said. "It's kind of poetic justice, isn't it?"
Lykos believes the law, if followed, provides citizens with adequate safeguards. Local police and attorneys in her office, she said, are well-versed in what constitutes adequate evidence for seizures. Rarely, she said, do seizures take place locally without the filing of criminal charges.