The Chicago Tribune has just picked up on a story from over a month ago at mysanantonio.com. The Texas town of Tenaha is using a state forfeiture law that gives the police the right to seize any property used in a crime to bolster that department’s budget. Police officers have been using this law to stop cars traveling through their tiny (pop. about 1000) town and they have taken property from over 140 drivers between 2006 and 2008.
They apparently told people that if they didn’t sign their property over to the police, they would press charges against them for money laundering or other crimes. One waiver said “In exchange for (respondent) signing the agreed order of forfeiture, the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office agrees to reject charges of money laundering pending at this time…”
Cynically, the mayor of the town said that the seizures 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.”
Without probable cause that a crime has taken place, and exigent circumstances to justify why the police must search the car without a warrant, police may not search a person’s car unless they have a “reasonable suspicion” that a person poses a danger to the police officer. And even then, they may only pat down a person or search in their immediate vicinity to the extent that such a search may help them find any weapons that could be used against them. They may not search outside of that scope searching for evidence of any crime however. Terry v. Ohio.
In some cases, the only “factual basis” for the drug or money laundering “charges” was the presence of larger sums of money in the car. And even for that, they would have had to search the car to find the motorists’ expensive property or cash without any “reasonable suspicion” of a threat to the police officer. In such a situation, that would be unconstitutional as well.
Normally, the remedy for the police’s violation of someone’s 4th Amendment rights would be suppression of any evidence obtained throught that violation. But in this case, since the individuals chose to sign over their property to the police, and no charges were filed, there is no evidence to suppress. Thus, the only remedy for a violation of these people’s Constitutional rights is by civil remedy, a §1983 discrimination case.
Thus, David Guillory, attorney for the so-far eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the town of Tenaha, filed a §1983 Complaint in District Court seeking compensation for the town’s violation of his clients’ Fourth Amendment Constitutional rights.
In an effort to prevent such abuses by towns in the future, the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committe has recommended several changes to the forfeiture laws there (p.71), including a shift of the burden of proof to the government in order to seize assets:
If the facts are proven to be as egregious as Mr. Guillory and the aforelinked articles suggest, I very much hope he is successful in his case against the town and that the State adopts more stringent rules to prevent abuses like these from happening in the future.
Picture Courtesy of Chicago Tribune