May 5th, 2009
11:59 PM ET

Highway robbery – by law enforcement?

Program Note: Tune in tonight for Gary Tuchman's full report on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/05/art.tenaha.highway1.jpg caption="A sign in Tenaha, Texas where more than 150 African Americans and Latinos have accused police officers of pulling them over for minor infractions and taking their valuables."]

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/05/art.tenaha.highway2.jpg caption="A sign off of the Tenaha highway in Shelby County, Texas."]

Gary Tuchman
AC360° Correspondent

The speed limit through the center of the tiny town of Tenaha, Texas is 35 miles per hour. I made sure when I drove there that my speedometer never even got to 36. Too many negative things have happened to too many drivers after being pulled over for infractions as minor as that.

The allegations against law enforcement people in Tenaha and in Shelby County, Texas are the kind of allegations you've heard about people in Cuba, North Korea, and the former Soviet Union. People in charge are accused of manipulating laws, blackmailing, extorting, and not giving a you know what about civil rights and common decency.

Here's the deal: at least 150 drivers, virtually all of them African Americans or Latinos have accused the town cops of pulling them over for minor infractions. Once pulled over, the drivers are often asked if they have money. If they say yes, these drivers tell us the cops start going through the car. If police find a lot of money, they are often arrested for money laundering, with no mention of any evidence other than the money. Once they are brought to jail, they find out about a proposed deal from the cops, and often from the District Attorney of the county.

The deal goes like this: We will not file charges against you, in exchange for leaving behind your money, and often your jewelry, and occasionally your vehicle too. Now, under Texas law, if you are pulled over and accused of a real crime, police are permitted to take money and other valuables that you might have used in your crime, or received from your crime. The idea is to stop criminals from profiting from breaking the law. But if charges are not filed, or you're found not guilty, authorities have to get it back. In these cases that are now part of a class action lawsuit, "charges" are not filed, but the authorities keep the loot.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/05/art.tenaha.highway3.jpg caption="Downtown Tenaha, Texas."]

And that brings us to the second part of the alleged plot. Forfeited money is only supposed to be used for "law enforcement purposes" by the police, and "official purposes" by the District Attorney. But after a public records request, we got our hands on the account information from the District Attorney's forfeiture account, in which she spends money on "official purposes" but also for things like Halloween candy, donations to her favorite causes and churches, and a ten thousand dollar check to one of the cops who pulls over these people in the first place. In her expense report, the DA says the check to the cop is for "investigative costs."

The dean of the Texas Senate, who is leading the fight to reform forfeiture laws, partly because he's aghast at what he's heard about in Tenaha says he is "shocked and angry." The class action attorney says "it's a shakedown; a piracy operation."

And then there are the drivers whose lives have dramatically changed.

Roderick Daniels is a married father of four who lives in Memphis. He drove to Texas in 2007 after seeing a want ad for a 1972 Cutlass he wanted to buy. The seller wanted cash so he says he traveled with 8500 dollars. He tells us he was pulled over for going 37 in a 35 mile per hour zone, and then charged with money laundering.

He went to jail, frightened beyond belief, and was told he could go but his 8500 dollars would have to stay. He was also told while there that he should leave behind his jewelry, including a crucifix his late father had given him.

He went back to Tennessee without his money and to this day, has never received a letter, a call, or anything, about the "charges" against him. This is the standard method of operation according to the class action attorney. Other drivers we talked to with were with their children. They tells us they were told their children will be sent to Child Protective Services or foster care unless they too leave their money behind.

Indeed, we have acquired written waivers signed by the District Attorney which mention children will not be sent to Child Protective Services with the understanding that valuables will be forfeited.

So what do the police who do the pulling over and the District Attorney have to say about these very serious allegations? A lawyer for the DA says she denies "all substantive allegations... and that she is in "compliance" with the law.

The cop and others charged in the suit also deny the allegations in court filings. But we wanted to ask the DA and the cop about this personally. They would not return our phone calls, so we were forced to find them with the cameras rolling. Suffice it to say, they were surprised to see us.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Crime & Punishment • Gary Tuchman
soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Michael Baker

    This is the result of two things. The totally false 'war on drugs', which is a misnomer for 'war on poor people', and the ridiculous 'glorification of cops' (especially in the media), that has been 'pushed' by the opportunistic politicians in the last 30 yrs.

    I have not seen many 'hero' cops in my 52 yrs. My experience with police has been to convince me that many of them would be,(are), crooks themselves.

    Remember, cops generally have poor domestic relationships, often get involved with hookers, are poorly educated, suspicious, and will 'break the law' to 'catch a crook'.

    Crooked is what crooked does.

    May 6, 2009 at 12:04 pm |
  2. skadder

    I'd like to see some pictures of the DA and the rest of her crew posted on the internet so the country can see what these crooks look like. Of course they all deny the allegations, come on now, since when does a crook tell you the truth. Joe citizen had to pay up to them, now it;s their turn to pay up. I would hope the politics of justice do no interfere with prosecuting these people. The world will be watching. These law officials are scumbags to say the least. Please post their pictures.


    May 6, 2009 at 12:04 pm |
  3. Pete

    It's Nowheresville, Texas. Those folks who got taken for big money are probaly lucky to be alive.

    May 6, 2009 at 12:04 pm |
  4. REF

    These people should be thrown under a jail in mexico

    May 6, 2009 at 12:01 pm |
  5. Jc Estrada

    Disgusting ........ Just Disgusting... hopefully the Authority will do something, and suspend this officers with out pay.

    May 6, 2009 at 11:59 am |
  6. Mae

    That sounds about right for The Good Ole Boys down in Texas. Question.What will be done about this? There are many more small towns in Texas just like this where the GOOD OLE WHITE BOYS run the town. Just don't let this end with a write up in the paper. My mother lives in a town in Texas just like this one. But the Sheriff was finally arrested for assulting his wife and sent to jail. Stop the madness this is 2009.

    May 6, 2009 at 11:54 am |
  7. Charlotte

    this is horrible, it is scary for people in our on country, I grew up knowing that if I drive anywhere in the south or southwest you can never be heard of again, this is 2009 that whole enforcement agency and the DA should be let go of their jobs and start over again. Especially in this day and age this should not be happening the the US of A.

    May 6, 2009 at 11:54 am |
  8. Angela

    I grew up and went to school in Tenaha. This is very disgusting to me. I can not believe what this country is coming to. The police officers that are doing this and the district attorney should be fired and banned from being in any other political positions ever.

    May 6, 2009 at 11:42 am |
  9. Kasey Massey

    This is so wrong! Someone needs to stop this "Dynamic Duo". They are the ones who need to be in jail!

    May 6, 2009 at 11:24 am |
  10. jenny

    I think we should put them in a car and chase them down and see how and what they are willing to pay for their lives and perhaps their families lives. What a bunch of scum bag losers. Lock em up and throw away the key!!!!

    May 6, 2009 at 10:42 am |
  11. Tom

    Welcome to TEXAS Leave Your Money And Go HOME! LOVE It We Have A town In Bell County Texas, Nolanville On HWY 190 Biggest Speed Trap For the military coming To Fort Hood 20/20 did a thing on them back in the 80's too.

    May 6, 2009 at 10:17 am |
  12. Mark

    Why aren't these police officers being arrested and charged with a crime? They are criminals, pure and simple. If anyone else committed an analogous crime they wouldn't get sued - they'd go to JAIL. These crooks should not escape prosecution simply because they are law enforcement officers.

    May 6, 2009 at 9:55 am |
  13. Thurman

    Uphold the law, huh. What makes this tradgic is that these are the same people we turn to for upholding justice and moral balance in the community. They're suppose to be an example of the right thing to do or a model for citizens how to live their everyday lives. However, they use their image (uniform and badge) to steal and commit offenses because "We the People" would not expect them to do such a thing...and they perfer people who in most cases do not know how to stand up and legally fight them. Eric holder should look into this becasue it's hard to respect some police officers these days.


    May 6, 2009 at 9:38 am |
  14. B Roth

    FTP !

    May 6, 2009 at 9:27 am |
  15. Deb

    I'm sorry, what year is this? I can't believe this is happening and appears to protection under Texas law. Bizarre to say the least.

    May 5, 2009 at 12:59 pm |
  16. bill douthat

    Good job on Shelby County. In the mid-80s I did similar stories about
    San Jacinto County, also on Hwy 59. The sheriff, Humpy Parker, was later indicted in federal court for ripping off motorists. My co-reporter Steve Sellers wrote a book about it, also a TV movie, called Terror on Hwy 59. Bill Douthat. West Palm Beach.

    May 5, 2009 at 12:43 pm |
  17. espiBlog

    Back in the mid 80's while driving through Texas I-10 heading to Atlanta to my first job -it so happens with CNN- I was pulled over for speeding. The Hwy patrol suggested I go to detention or pay my fine "now." He handed me a ticket + official envelope addressed to the local court. I told him I had no cash. No problem... the officer escorted me to a convenience store where I pulled over $100, put it inside the envelope, and he watched me dropped it in the mail box.


    espiBlog.org & espiBlog iReporter

    May 5, 2009 at 12:40 pm |
  18. Stephen Hammond

    In my country....throw these folks in jail and fine them very very very large. Disgusting.

    May 5, 2009 at 12:21 pm |