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Ear to the Ground

Pirates in Uniform Are Terrorizing the U.S.

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Posted on Aug 18, 2013
Marcus Jeffrey (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Local governments nationwide are invoking powers of civil forfeiture to pluck people who have committed no crime from highways and elsewhere and take their money and property.

As revelations about the U.S. government’s ability and aggressive efforts to monitor people’s digital activity continue to trickle in, Sarah Stillman’s New Yorker profile of wild, unchecked abuse of power should chill any American.

The article begins with an account of a couple, waitress Jennifer Boatright and her boyfriend, Ron Henderson, and their two children driving on U.S. 59 toward Linden, Texas, in April 2007. It was an annual trip to visit family members and wander a set of wildflower trails. Shortly after arriving in Tenaha, Texas, the family was pulled over by a local cop. The officer inquired whether Henderson, a Latino, knew he’d been driving in the left lane for more than a mile without passing.

After asking whether there were any drugs in the car, the officer and his partner proceeded to search the vehicle. They found a marbled-glass pipe and a stash of money the couple had bundled together to buy a used car when they arrived at their destination. The officers escorted the group to a police station. A police report said the couple 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 children were described as possible decoys intended to distract police as the couple traveled down the road. No drugs were found in the car.

An hour into their questioning at the station, the county’s district attorney, Lynda K. Russell, arrived and told the couple they had two options. They could face felony charges for “money laundering” and “child endangerment”—which would place them in jail and their children in foster care—or they could sign their cash over to the city of Tenaha and get back on the road. “No criminal charges shall be filed,” a waiver Russell drafted read, “and our children shall not be turned over to CPS.” Boatright and Henderson gave up the money.

“Later,” Stillman writes, Boatright “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 [the officer], 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.”

“Outraged by their experience in Tenaha,” Stillman continues, “Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson helped to launch a class-action lawsuit challenging the abuse of a legal doctrine known as civil-asset forfeiture.” The practice does not require suspects to be guilty of any crime. Fighting it in court is expensive and can take years. Tight budgets and personal greed mean law enforcement officers as well as governments have an incentive to milk the law for all they can.

Revenue gains over the years have been staggering. “At the Justice Department,” Stillman writes, “proceeds from forfeiture soared from $27 million in 1985 to $556 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.’ ”

Read more of Stillman’s harrowing story here.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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