More Shocking Asset Forfeiture Stories…LA City Attorney Addresses Wobbling Offenses…and Sheriff Baca & the LA Times EditorialAugust 7th, 2013 by Taylor Walker
ASSET FORFEITURE—ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A CRIME DETERRENT IN THE 70′S, NOW A GOLDEN GOOSE FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT
Tuesday, we posted a story about innocent people losing their homes through asset forfeiture in Philadelphia, but this controversial law enforcement tactic has become a problem all over the US, and perhaps most notably, in a tiny town called Tenaha, Texas.
In Tenaha, police officers reportedly regularly stopped out-of-town cars for minor traffic violations and proceeded to seize valuables, from gold necklaces to thousands of dollars, threatening alternatives like arrest, felony charges, and turning children in to Child Protective Services.
The New Yorker’s Sarah Stillman has a fascinating (and lengthy) piece on Tenaha’s story and the issue of asset forfeiture at large. Here are some clips:
On a bright Thursday afternoon in 2007, Jennifer Boatright, a waitress at a Houston bar-and-grill, drove with her two young sons and her boyfriend, Ron Henderson, on U.S. 59 toward Linden, Henderson’s home town, near the Texas-Louisiana border. They made the trip every April, at the first signs of spring, to walk the local wildflower trails and spend time with Henderson’s father. This year, they’d decided to buy a used car in Linden, which had plenty for sale, and so they bundled their cash savings in their car’s center console. Just after dusk, they passed a sign that read “Welcome to Tenaha: A little town with big Potential!”
They pulled into a mini-mart for snacks. When they returned to the highway ten minutes later, Boatright, a honey-blond “Texas redneck from Lubbock,” by her own reckoning, and Henderson, who is Latino, noticed something strange. The same police car that their eleven-year-old had admired in the mini-mart parking lot was trailing them. Near the city limits, a tall, bull-shouldered officer named Barry Washington pulled them over.
He asked if Henderson knew that he’d been driving in the left lane for more than half a mile without passing.
No, Henderson replied. He said he’d moved into the left lane so that the police car could make its way onto the highway.
Were there any drugs in the car? When Henderson and Boatright said no, the officer asked if he and his partner could search the car.
The officers found the couple’s cash and a marbled-glass pipe that Boatright said was a gift for her sister-in-law, and escorted them across town to the police station. In a corner there, two tables were heaped with jewelry, DVD players, cell phones, and the like. According to the police report, Boatright and Henderson fit the profile of drug couriers: they were driving from Houston, “a known point for distribution of illegal narcotics,” to Linden, “a known place to receive illegal narcotics.” The report describes their children as possible decoys, meant to distract police as the couple breezed down the road, smoking marijuana. (None was found in the car, although Washington claimed to have smelled it.)
The county’s district attorney, a fifty-seven-year-old woman with feathered Charlie’s Angels hair named Lynda K. Russell, arrived an hour later. Russell, who moonlighted locally as a country singer, told Henderson and Boatright that they had two options. They could face felony charges for “money laundering” and “child endangerment,” in which case they would go to jail and their children would be handed over to foster care. Or they could sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha, and get back on the road. “No criminal charges shall be filed,” a waiver she drafted read, “and our children shall not be turned over to CPS,” or Child Protective Services.
“Where are we?” Boatright remembers thinking. “Is this some kind of foreign country, where they’re selling people’s kids off?” Holding her sixteen-month-old on her hip, she broke down in tears.
Later, she learned that cash-for-freedom deals had become a point of pride for Tenaha, and that versions of the tactic were used across the country. “Be safe and keep up the good work,” the city marshal wrote to Washington, following a raft of complaints from out-of-town drivers who claimed that they had been stopped in Tenaha and stripped of cash, valuables, and, in at least one case, an infant child, without clear evidence of contraband.
David Guillory [attorney for Boatright and Henderson] started his research by driving his cluttered red Volkswagen Jetta to the Shelby County courthouse, in Center, Texas, where he examined the ledgers that listed the past two years of the county’s legal cases. He wanted to see “any case styled ‘The State of Texas versus’ anything that sounds like a piece of property.” The clerk began hauling out one bulging accordion file after another.
“The eye-opening event was pulling those files,” Guillory told me. One of the first cases that caught his attention was titled State of Texas vs. One Gold Crucifix. The police had confiscated a simple gold cross that a woman wore around her neck after pulling her over for a minor traffic violation. No contraband was reported, no criminal charges were filed, and no traffic ticket was issued. That’s how it went in dozens more cases involving cash, cars, and jewelry. A number of files contained slips of paper of a sort he’d never seen before. These were roadside property waivers, improvised by the district attorney, which threatened criminal charges unless drivers agreed to hand over valuables.
Guillory eventually found the deal threatening to take Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson’s children unless the couple signed away their money to Shelby County. “It’s like they were memorializing the fact that they were abdicating their responsibility to fight crime,” Guillory said. “If you believe children are in sufficient danger that they should be removed from their parents—don’t trade that for money!” Usually, police and prosecutors are careful about how they broker such exchanges. But Shelby County officials were so brazen about their swap-meet approach to law enforcement, he says, “they put it in the damn document!”
Patterns began to emerge. Nearly all the targets had been pulled over for routine traffic stops. Many drove rental cars and came from out of state. None appeared to have been issued tickets. And the targets were disproportionately black or Latino. A finding of discrimination could bring judicial scrutiny. “It was a highway-piracy operation,” Guillory said, and, he thought, material for a class-action lawsuit.
Forfeiture in its modern form began with federal statutes enacted in the nineteen-seventies and aimed not at waitresses and janitors but at organized-crime bosses and drug lords. Law-enforcement officers were empowered to seize money and goods tied to the production of illegal drugs. Later amendments allowed the seizure of anything thought to have been purchased with tainted funds, whether or not it was connected to the commission of a crime. Even then, forfeiture remained an infrequent resort until 1984, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. It established a special fund that turned over proceeds from forfeitures to the law-enforcement agencies responsible for them. Local police who provided federal assistance were rewarded with a large percentage of the proceeds, through a program called Equitable Sharing. Soon states were crafting their own forfeiture laws.
Revenue gains were staggering. At the Justice Department, proceeds from forfeiture soared from twenty-seven million dollars in 1985 to five hundred and fifty-six million in 1993. (Last year, the department took in nearly $4.2 billion in forfeitures, a record.) The strategy helped reconcile President Reagan’s call for government action in fighting crime with his call to reduce public spending. In 1989, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh boasted, “It’s now possible for a drug dealer to serve time in a forfeiture-financed prison after being arrested by agents driving a forfeiture-provided automobile while working in a forfeiture-funded sting operation.”
(We urge you to go over to the New Yorker and read the rest.)
THANKS TO LA CITY ATTORNEY MIKE FEUER, 91 OFFENSES “WOBBLING” BETWEEN INFRACTION AND MISDEMEANOR, NOW ONLY INFRACTIONS
LA City Attorney Mike Feuer, in an attempt to save taxpayer dollars and make the system in the City Attorney’s office more efficient, revised filing guidelines so that 91 offenses that could be treated as either an infraction or a misdemeanor, known as “wobblers,” would be treated only as infractions.
The Associated Press’ Tami Abdollah has the story. Here’s a clip:
An internal LAPD memo dated July 25 that was sent to commanding officers detailed 91 violations that are now considered infractions instead of misdemeanors. That means the violations won’t appear in U.S. Department of Justice criminal records, and they no longer figure into department crime statistics tracking misdemeanors and felonies.
The memo was sent out in response to the city attorney’s office revision of its filing guidelines in May. The change is an effort to make the system more efficient and save taxpayer dollars, said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the newly seated city attorney, Mike Feuer. Such offenses, which number in the thousands each year, were usually downgraded to infractions anyway upon review by the city attorney’s office, Wilcox said.
“These were already treated as infractions, it’s just flipping how they were reviewed so there is not another review process here,” Wilcox said. “They’d be written up as infractions by the police officer.”
The department said the changes create penalties that actually reflect reality, especially when budgets are tight. Misdemeanors, however, can bring a year-long sentence in jail, but it rarely happens.
WWLA? TALKS LA TIMES EDITORIAL ASKING SHERIFF BACA NOT TO RUN AGAIN
Monday evening, KCRW’s Warren Olney, on his show Which Way, LA? hosted a discussion about issues raised by Sunday’s LAT editorial asking Sheriff Lee Baca not to run for reelection in 2014. Guests were Sandra Hernandez speaking for the LA Times editorial board, and LASD spokesman Steve Whitmore.
The entire segment is worth listening to, but here’s Hernandez’s answer to Steve Whitmore’s list of the Sheriff’s accomplishments and his assertion that the Sheriff is doing all he can to implement reforms recommended by the jails commission:
“First of all, we’re glad that the county’s crime rate is down, and that the county isn’t bucking a national trend that’s been going on for a decade—we’re glad to see that. …Second of all…it’s great that he’s implementing these reforms, but these reforms were necessary only because these problems occurred on his watch.”
(Here’s WLA’s coverage of the LAT editorial.)
SHERIFF BACA: “DEAR LA TIMES, LET THE VOTERS DECIDE”
Then, Tuesday Morning, Sheriff Lee Baca responded to the Sunday LA Times editorial. In his letter, Sheriff Baca stated, among other things, his objections to and concerns about what he felt was the LA Times’ attempt to subvert the democratic process via their editorial:
I find it disconcerting that The Times has decided it should deprive voters of the right to select whomever they please as the next sheriff. Democracy is about giving voters choices, not denying them.