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More Shocking Asset Forfeiture Stories…LA City Attorney Addresses Wobbling Offenses…and Sheriff Baca & the LA Times Editorial

August 7th, 2013 by Taylor Walker


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.)


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.


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.)


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.

Posted in City Attorney, crime and punishment, LASD, Sheriff Lee Baca | 16 Comments »

16 Responses

  1. James Carter Says:

    Lee “don’t elect me” Baca,
    Desperate times calls for desperate measures, your rebuttal and Whitmore’s response on KCRW sounds desperate. Do the right thing and drop out of the running of the office of Sheriff. During the budget cuts, it was Tanaka who ensured the department ran as fiscally sound as possible. You are a complete “CHARLATAN.”

    Tanaka for Sheriff 2014…….

  2. Get Real Says:

    “All these scurrilous attacks on my record and achievements overlook the good I have done.
    - I stabilized the economy
    - I built the autobahn
    - I helped design the VW Beetle
    - I caused the trains to arrive on time
    - I restored order
    I stand on my record and wish to lead you into the future.”
    A. Hitler

    Get Real, Lee.

  3. Breaking News Says:

    A very interesting and most telling radio interview with the Times and Steve Whitmore. The Times made their point very clear; All of the problems within Custody Division were in fact, brought to Baca’s attention and he did nothing about it.

    Mr. Whitmore also acknowledged Baca was told about these issues before hand, “But he is NOW working vigorously to fix these problems.” This interview was very clear, The Los Angeles Times has “finessed” Sheriff Baca.

    Kudos to Mr. Whitmore, he is trying to defend the un-defendable Baca in a professional manner.

  4. 10-33_Go Says:

    Isn’t it sort of bizarre the sheriff condemned the Times for depriving the voters the right to free and fair elections? When all they did was argue the race should be contested and that his getting out of the way would make a free and fair election more likely? I mean, that’s some straight African autocrat doublespeak, there. The sheriff’s argument for FOUR MORE YEARS seems to be “look at my record” — and it’s a very unconvincing record! Yeah, crime is “down” but scandals are through the roof. And, is crime really down? Those of us who work patrol know how crimes are downgraded and a ton is simply not reported or not documented because people know (and officers/deputies coach them) that unworkable cases are not worth the paper they’re written on.

    The sheriff has absolutely no argument to be given four more years. So his argument is a referendum on the last 16–in particular the last four. And if he’s so open to such a referendum, perhaps he should encourage challengers against him–rather than what we know is the case, that challengers, if unsuccessful, have ended their department career (as has occurred in the past). But the sheriff won’t do that, because the election is all about him and not at all about what’s best for the department or the communities it serves.

  5. CSN83 Says:

    Baca can use this on his campaign of excuses ;

    As the three wise monkeys or Baca/Ditmore and Senior Staff says

    My senior staff has never shown me any documentation to be concerned about.
    I see no problems (evil)

    My senior staff never mentioned to me anything to be concerned about .
    I speak no problems (evil)

    My senior staff never overheard anything to be concerned about.
    I hear of no problems (evil)

    If reelected I promise to fire them all and start over. I will no longer listen to the staff I entrusted to keep our department running smoothly. I will learn to use a computer and make my own decisions. I will be a better Sheriff.

  6. Jack Dawson Says:

    I love the logic that it is okay to know about a problem but fail to act until it manifests into a full blown crisis. Then when confronted and after your admissions of an insulated and uninformed management style, you are working “vigorously” to fix the problem (stay elected). This is unacceptable and would not be tolerated anywhere else in any field. Sheriff Baca wouldn’t accept this from anyone in our own organization.

    The Sheriff couldn’t find a strategy to get us back on course if he had a map, a flash light, and the known location of said strategy secured in Whitmore’s burly eyebrows. Those things are representative of our department. Out of control!!!!

    ABB 2014

  7. Facts matter Says:

    It’s called the “Beginning of the End” for Baca. The funny thing is their are some at HQ who think he’s going to “Pull this one out.” lol

    I hear Baca is having many doors shut on him lately. I wonder why?

  8. 10-33_Go Says:

    I wonder when the last time was that the LA Times (or any newspaper) encouraged an undeclared candidate *not* to run a year before an election.

  9. Time to Clean House Says:

    Interesting article about Steve McLean. 1.8 G.P.A.? Wow.

  10. J.London Says:

    C: Baca had nothing to do with the Education Based Program inside the jails!!What a jerk!! Please be careful when Baca spits out his trash about any subject that he (Baca) has NO expertise in. Baca hasn’t any intention or capability to come up with, develop and/or implement any innovative programs that he takes credit for! Baca knows how ‘to dance’ around Liberal Progressives(don’t be upset)by throwing out any statements until he gets a response from the audience.

    Years ago, at a function at Cal-State LB, Baca told a few folks “I keep talking until I hit a chord and NEVER lose the audience.” Doesn’t sound sincere to me either!

    Baca is at his worst when he is pressed for answers. As the campaign moves forward I pray that our press doesn’t allow Baca to slip through his lies again! Baca could have never accomplished his crimes for 16 years without the indirect help from the local press!

    LASD is in a bitter struggle for its very soul. We have two roads which to choose. The voters (I am one) will decide if we continue down the road of scandal and morass or start anew. I give a dire warning! Should Baca ot Tanaka win the people of LA County will pay a price in corruption and blood unseen since the days of Al Capone!

  11. Lesser evil Says:

    What exactly has Baca done that will get him re-elected another four years. I’m sure county voters are going to think twice bout this one. I could see if the Sheriff had a 16 year illustrious career, but that’s not the case. LA County voters are going vote for the opponent simply because its not the status quo. It’s change.

    It wiill be an interesting race. One that will go down in the history books.

  12. Old Side Says:

    #10. Your last line is a little melodramatic. Some want to throw Tanaka under the bus because he was a little hard on slugs? Pay for Play with a $100 donation? Please, my bartender should make me a Field Marshall for what I give him. I personally know people who have a little bit better of a career because of Tanaka. I’m talking about sergeant and below. People who NOBODY would stick there hand out to help. People who offered to return the kindness and were told, “I don’t need that, just don’t “F” up. Obviously some of you weren’t around to see how Peter J. dealt with people. Entertaining to see a Chief running out of the executive offices and go into hiding for a week till he calmed down. This a quasi military organization. Sometimes getting in a subordinates face to correct a problem is just a form of communication. Last time I checked, that’s part of our job, communicating.

  13. Reform Says:

    Old Side

    You are 100% accurate!!

  14. CrackerJack Says:

    There’s alot of revisionist history being posted here. Vladimir Posner would be proud of you Tanaka groupies. This old LA Weekly article is one of the most detailed and balanced accounts of how the Dept. arrived at its’ present state.

    The choice for Sheriff isn’t between Hitler or Stalin. How about Churchhill or Roosevelt.

  15. Facts matter Says:

    Todays LA Times Editorial. WOW!

    Gloria Molina: I can’t fire Sheriff Baca, but you can..

    I’m extremely troubled that despite copious evidence of a county Sheriff’s Department in serious managerial disarray, not one challenger has stepped forward to rescue it.

    As a Los Angeles County supervisor, I can’t fire Sheriff Lee Baca. Only the voters can. But I do oversee lawsuit payouts — most against his department. Each time I approve a legal settlement arising from misuse of force by sheriff’s deputies, another arises. Details vary, but what stay the same are bad management and zero accountability.

    For years, Baca has circled the globe attending events while apparently neglecting certain duties at home. Serious responsibilities — like curbing jail violence and ensuring consistent deputy patrol in unincorporated neighborhoods — fell by the wayside. His lack of responsiveness indicates that not only has he failed at his mission, but he feels he never had a problem to begin with. For years, he’s paid lip service to the Board of Supervisors about “reform” while we’ve paid for lawsuits originating from his mismanagement.

    So many law enforcement personnel serve professionally and honorably, and it’s a disgrace that their heroism is tarnished by poor management. Now is the time for the right challenger to step up and run against Baca in 2014. What’s required is integrity and courage.

    Gloria Molina

    Los Angeles

  16. Lesser evil Says:

    The right candidate is Anyone But Baca. The LA Times, LA Board and community will show that in the polls. Baca’s services are no longer needed!!

    ABB 2014

    Pat Gomez
    Lou Vince
    Mystery Candidate

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