Authorities in a Texas county where a drug enforcement program was allegedly used to shake down black and Latino highway travelers are returning more than $100,000 taken during the traffic stops.
The stops in Tenaha, which often resulted in people being forced to hand over cash without any charges being filed, have led to multiple lawsuits and two federal criminal investigations.
District Attorney Kenneth Florence said Shelby County has dismissed all of its pending forfeiture cases, even those without a connection to Tenaha, in what he described as an effort to turn the page after an agreement was reached in August to settle a class action lawsuit stemming from the stops.
"I just don't think you could get anything done with any of those cases," said Florence, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in August and is running for the post in next week's election. "They are all tainted, so to speak."
Asset forfeiture laws provide a civil procedure for authorities to seize property they believe is linked to criminal activity. The laws are designed to take so-called "dirty" money off the streets and allow it to be used to fund law enforcement efforts. But critics believe the laws are too easily abused, and they have frequently pointed to Tenaha, a town of 1,160 near the Louisiana border, as an example.
The class action alleged that innocent motorists of color traveling on U.S. Highway 59 were threatened with money laundering charges if they didn't turn over their cash through forfeiture agreements. Although many of the motorists initially agreed to the forfeitures, they were able to get their money back after hiring attorneys and challenging the legitimacy of the proceedings.
The settlement, which still needs a judge's approval, will require the county to take steps aimed at eliminating racial profiling in its law enforcement.
An Associated Press report last year detailed how some of the stops also resulted in suspected drug traffickers receiving light sentences or escaping criminal prosecution altogether for giving up their cash. Those cases netted the county more than $800,000 in less than a year.
They were prosecuted by the county's former district attorney, Lynda Kaye Russell, who retired at the end of last year. Russell has not responded to repeated requests for comment, and she asserted her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination for every question in a deposition for the class action lawsuit.
The money that remains with the county accrued from forfeiture cases that have languished because of competing claims or defendants who hadn't been properly served with court papers, records show. It has been placed in the court registry until people can prove it's theirs.
Luis Rivera, of Brockton, Mass., is among those who were notified that they have a possible claim to some of the remaining cash. He and a companion, both of whom are Puerto Rican, were arrested after being stopped four years ago in Tenaha for "following too close and failure to drive in a single lane," records show.
Joe Krowski, an attorney for Rivera, said his client is pleased he may soon get his money but remains traumatized by the two days he spent in a Texas jail.
"All of a sudden, they take your possessions and stick you in a cell when you didn't do anything wrong," Krowski said. "How much scarier does it get?"
Barry Washington, the deputy city marshal who made the stop, took $6,160 as well as two vehicles — one Rivera was driving and another he was towing — on the premise that Rivera, 30, and his companion were in possession of a criminal instrument, records show.
Krowski said the charge was based on the unproven notion that the vehicle Rivera was towing, a Volkswagen beetle, had a secret compartment.
Washington, a former Texas state trooper, testified in his deposition that he believed all the stops were legitimate and that God had directed him to disrupt drug trafficking on U.S. Highway 59.
The arrests of Rivera and his companion never led to indictments, but the money has remained in Shelby County because the companion was never served with the forfeiture papers, records show.
In addition to the cash and the vehicles, Washington seized a laptop computer, cellphones, a cellphone charger, DVDs and even a carton of cigarettes from Rivera.
Florence said it's possible the seized vehicles may still exist on a lot in Tenaha. But he said other seized items may no longer be available because of a break-in at the city's evidence locker.
In addition to the class action and a series of lawsuits filed by individual motorists, the Tenaha stops have been the subject of an investigation by the Department of Justice's civil rights division and a separate federal probe of a constable who allegedly bugged the offices of other city officials.
A spokeswoman with the Department of Justice confirmed in an email Wednesday that the civil rights investigation, initiated soon after the class action was filed in 2008, is ongoing.