Recently, Shelby County District Attorney Linda K. Russell, found herself on the working end of a civil rights lawsuit for allegedly supervising a highway robbery (asset forfeiture) scheme in which casino bound minorities where pulled over for traffic violations and then threatened with prosecution if they didn’t sign over whatever cash they had to the State.
Linda wanted to use tax dollars (and forfeiture cash) to defend her case. Fortunately, the Attorney General put Linda in the same position as the victim of asset forfeiture- Linda will have to pay for her own defense sans government funds.
What happened in Shelby county is indicative of the problems with Texas AF laws. When you combine government greed, racism, and a lack of protection/due process for defendants you get malfeasance and corruption every time.
James Morrow was driving to Houston to visit his cousin when he was pulled over in the East Texas town of Tenaha for “driving too close to the white line.”
The officer, Barry Washington, searched the vehicle and asked Morrow if he had any money, according to court records. Morrow, who is black, had $3,900. He said the officer took the cash and drove him to the Shelby County Jail.
That’s where authorities threatened to prosecute him for money laundering unless he agreed to forfeit the money, Morrow said. He was never charged with a crime in the 2007 incident, and when he pursued legal action, he got the money back.
Driving too close to the white line isn’t a crime in Texas. Still, James was detained and robbed by local police for alleged “money loaundering”. Nice.
It gets worse.
Tenaha is a town of 1,112 along a U.S. highway that links Houston with several gambling destinations in Louisiana. Several motorists had large amounts of cash because they were en route to or returning from Shreveport casinos, Guillory said.
Other plaintiffs include an elderly black woman from Ohio who said that after being threatened with money laundering charges, she signed a document authorizing the seizure of $4,000; and an interracial couple from Houston who alleged that authorities said they would place their two children in foster care if they didn’t hand over $6,000
What’s the law on asset forfeiture in Texas?
Texas government theft/asset forfeiture laws are found in Chapter 59 of the code of criminal procedure. Basically the state can seize “contraband” or property used in the commission of, or property that is the profits from a crime.
Wouldn’t that require an actual conviction for a criminal offense? Not so fast. No conviction is required to steal your property. In fact, the State doesn’t even have to actually charge you with a crime to file an AF case.
Worse, even if you are later acquitted (found not guilty), the State can still try and steal your property. Forfeiture hearings are civil, and the State need only show by a preponderance of the evidence that your property is contraband.
Most asset forfeiture cases are unopposed. AF victims are mostly poor and can not afford an attorney to fight the seizure. These defendants find themselves alone against the awesome power of the State’s forfeiture machine. In civil cases when you don’t show up the Plaintiff gets a summary or default judgment. In my experience many, if not most, forfeiture cases end this way.
A portion of the money, cars, and property seized become part of a DA slush fund for Xmas parties etc.
This monetary incentive, combined with the lack of court appointed counsel for the victims of AF, create the perfect environment for malfeasance.