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."]
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.
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