I wrote a couple years ago about the incredible class action lawsuit against the town of Tenaha, Texas over a scheme to use the asset forfeiture laws to do nothing less than commit highway robbery from behind a badge. That case has now been settled, though that settlement has not yet been approved by the court.
Tenaha is a tiny town in East Texas of about a thousand people that had managed to seize more than $3 million in cash and property from motorists. In about 150 cases in two years, the Tenaha police seized cash or property without ever charging or even having any actual suspicion that the victims had broken the law at all. They did this by threatening to charge people with drug running and money laundering if they didn’t hand over the money they had on them. Then they used the money to give raises to the officers that seized the most money.
There aren’t any details on the settlement yet, but the ACLU said this in a press release:
Under the consent decree filed today in the U.S. District Court in Marshall, police will now be required to observe rigorous rules that will govern traffic stops in Tenaha and Shelby County. All stops will now be videotaped, and the officer must state the reason for the stop and the basis for suspecting criminal activity. Motorists pulled over during a traffic stop must be advised orally and in writing that they can refuse a search.
In addition, officers are no longer using dogs in conducting traffic stops. No property may be seized during a search unless the officer first gives the driver a reason for why it should be taken. All property improperly taken must be returned within 30 business days. And any asset forfeiture revenue seized during a traffic stop must be donated to non-profit organizations or used for the audio and video equipment or training required by the settlement.
That’s a good start, but still not enough. These laws need to be done away with, period. The government should not be allowed to seize cash or property without convicting — not charging, convicting — the owner of a crime and showing that the assets being seized were either used in or gained through the commission of that crime.