Greg Moses : The Cash Cops of Tenaha, Texas

Welcome to Tenaha! Photo by Exquisitely Bored in Nacogdoches / Flickr.

Bizarre License on Highway 59:
The Cash Cops of Tenaha

By Greg Moses / The Rag Blog / August 20, 2009

It was Friday of the last day of August, 2007 when Arkansas resident James Morrow attempted to mind his own business while driving peaceably through Tenaha, a small East Texas town in Shelby County south of Shreveport and Longview.

According to a federal lawsuit (Morrow v Tenaha) filed by attorneys Tim Garrigan and David Guillory, there was “no legal justification” for what happened next. Morrow was stopped by Tenaha Deputy Marshall Barry Washington and asked to step out of his car. Deputy Washington then searched Morrow’s car.

Then Deputy Washington was joined at the scene by Shelby County Precinct Four Constable Randy Whatley who searched the car with a dog.

Following two searches of his car, Morrow was asked by Deputy Washington if he had any money, and he said yes, he was carrying about $3,900 in his wallet. Deputy Washington promptly seized $3,969 from Morrow, confiscated his two cell phones, and arrested him for “money laundering.”

“Washington had no reason to believe Plaintiff Morrow was guilty of money laundering,” says the federal lawsuit. “Defendants Washington and Russell told Plaintiff Morrow they would hold him prisoner and prosecute him for money laundering unless he would agree to forfeit the $3969. Under this duress and these threats, Defendants Washington and Russell coerced Plaintiff Morrow to execute documents memorializing the forfeiture, and released him, and warned him to not hire a lawyer or try to get his money back.” The “money laundering” charges were subsequently dismissed.

Morrow is a black African American and the lead plaintiff in a case involving eight motorists who claim they were stopped and stripped of their cash for no other provocation than driving or riding through Tenaha while black. The cars they all drove were either rented or displayed out-of-state license plates.

On August 13, 2007, Deputy Washington lifted $50,291.00 from two black African Americans from Washington D.C. and Maryland who were traveling through Texas together.

“Washington threatened Plaintiffs with charges of money laundering and lengthy sentences if they would not execute documents allowing the seizure or if they otherwise contested the seizure,” says the lawsuit. “Washington did not charge Plaintiffs with any criminal offense, nor did he have legal justification to do so.”

On June 11, 2008, Deputy Washington confiscated $13,000 from a black African American from Wisconsin.

“Washington threatened to bring money laundering charges against Plaintiff, and to prosecute him on those charges, if he did not execute documents permitting Defendant Washington’s seizure and forfeiture of the money,” says the lawsuit. “Under this coercion, Plaintiff signed the documents.”

On April 18, 2007, Deputy Washington stopped and detained another pair of black African American motorists, Linda Dorman and Marvin Pearson, both from Ohio. While under detention they were questioned by Shelby County District Attorney Investigator Danny Green. He asked them if they had any money. According to court documents Dorman and Pearson admitted to having $4,500, but after Green confiscated the cash under the usual coercive threats, he handed them a receipt for only $4,000. No charges against Dorman or Pearson were ever filed.

Jennifer Boatwright is a white woman from Texas, but on April 26, 2007 she was driving down Highway 59 near Tenaha with Ronald Henderson, a black African American. They were stopped and detained by Deputy Washington, then questioned by Washington and D.A. Investigator Green.

“Green threatened to bring money laundering charges against Plaintiffs Boatwright and Henderson, and to take their children and put them in foster care if Plaintiffs would not sign papers prepared by Defendant Green to authorize the seizure,” says the lawsuit. “Under coercion, Plaintiffs Boatwright and Henderson complied.” They handed over $6,000 in cash. No charges were ever filed against them.

“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,” explains CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman in a May, 2009 blog post at AC360.

As Tuchman explains, the forfeiture law is intended to take bad money and put it to good use, but after an extensive public information request, the CNN team discovered that District Attorney Lynda K. Russell has collected an estimated $3 million in forfeiture funds to purchase such things as $195 for Tootsie Pops, Dum Dums, and Dubble Bubble that she contributed to a poultry festival, $524 for a popcorn machine and popcorn, $400 for barbecue catering, and at least two checks totaling $6,000 to a local Baptist church.

“But this one, this check, really stands out,” reports Tuchman in an archived transcript of the story. “This is the check the DA wrote for $10,000 and paid directly to police officer Barry Washington for what are described as investigative costs.”

With camera rolling, Tuchman asks Russell and Washington for comments, but they both refuse on account of pending litigation. In federal court documents the defendants deny the charges, claim to have no knowledge of alleged facts, claim immunity as officials, and ask that the case be dismissed.

Republican D.A. Russell was elected by 53 percent of the vote against a Democrat opponent in 2000, according to official numbers posted by the Texas Secretary of State. In 2004 she increased her general election share to 59 percent against her predecessor, Democrat Karen S. Price, who tried to stage a comeback after a failed effort to get elected in 2000 as a Republican District Judge. In 2008, D.A. Russell ran unopposed. No one that year could have made a campaign issue of the federal suit that was filed after the spring primary but before the fall general election.

During the summer of 2009, lawyers battled over discovery motions. Plaintiffs are trying to certify a class action lawsuit and therefore want volumes of video and documentation well beyond the eight named cases. On August 20, Federal District Judge T. John Ward largely granted ACLU requests for more materials and clarified the legal path to possible class action certification.

On the defense side, attorneys argued that they should be allowed to discover “travel itineraries, calendars, journals, or other documents reflecting schedule and/or any travel; all credit card bills/receipts; all receipts for hotel, gas, meals, rental cars; and photographs from any trips and of any items seized.” Judge Ward agreed, but only if the records were “readily available.”

Lawyers for the police and D.A.’s office also wanted plaintiffs to turn over bank records, income tax returns, and employment records; in an apparent attempt to revisit the “money laundering” charges that were never filed in the first place. It was a scary request supported by scary argumentation:

“In other words,” argued lawyers for the Shelby County law enforcement establishment in their federal filings, “even if the initial traffic stop lacked probable cause, the forfeiture action could proceed and the State could still meet its civil case burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence and the property could still be forfeited.”

The authority the cops were seeking was chilling. They could stop people for no reason, take their cash, spend it, meanwhile filing no charges of wrongdoing. All the while, the authorities of East Texas or wherever could count on a federal court order that would allow them to go after the banking, tax, and employment records of their innocent victims if they tried to get their money back. Judge Ward denied those parts of discovery.

The discovery motions also revealed that collection accounts were not always well kept. One front-line collector argued that he kept bulk numbers only and could not provide evidence of how much money was taken on any single occasion. To get your money back from these actors, they may demand that you prove it’s not contraband and then prove how much they took.

But these East Texas law enforcers are not finished grasping at bizarre license to ply their trade as the cash cops of Highway 59. D.A. Russell now seeks to use the forfeiture funds to pay for her defense. In early October the ACLU filed a brief with the Texas Attorney General’s Office to prevent the forfeiture funds from being spent to defend alleged abuse of forfeiture powers.

“Even if it were determined that, under other circumstances, the District Attorney should be permitted to use forfeited assets to pay for legal representation, such an action in this case should be prohibited because it would give the appearance of impropriety,” argues the ACLU brief.

“The Plaintiffs claim the funds were taken illegally. To permit the District Attorney to use them would suggest that law-breakers may profit from ill-gotten gains, the very problem that the asset forfeiture law was created to prevent.”

Cash is a lucrative temptation. Empowering officials to take cash money from passing motorists and give it to attorneys who can help them keep it is a plain recipe for placing law enforcement powers in the hands of highway forfeiture gangs.

[Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review, author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence, and a card carrying member of the ACLU. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com.]

Also see Police in Texas : Property Seizure called ‘Highway Piracy’ by Thorne Dreyer / February 11, 2009

The Rag Blog

This entry was posted in Rag Bloggers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Greg Moses : The Cash Cops of Tenaha, Texas

  1. Bob Sam says:

    Sadly, anyone familiar with ETX or US 59 in ETX and its history of police abuse will not be shocked or surprised by this story.

    Back in the ’60s and ’70s, just north of HouTX, US 59 in San Jacinto County was terrorized by crooked cops led by the SanJac Sheriff, Humpy Parker. This from Askville.com:

    “In 1983, Texas Sheriff James Parker was charged, along with three of his deputies, for handcuffing prisoners to chairs, placing towels over their faces, and pouring water on the cloth until they gave what the officers considered to be confessions. The sheriff and his deputies were all convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15886834

    Humpy Parker was at the center of a law enforcement scandal in the 1970s and 80s that was finally interrupted in 1983 when an undercover FBI agent was arrested and subjected to water torture and other illegal tactics. Gary Parker was a patrol sergeant at the time the corruption scandal was uncovered. Parker’s deputies testified at trial that they would park on U.S. 59 and watch for “long-hairs” driving vehicles displaying a bumper sticker for Houston radio station K-101.

    “Humpy” Parker died in 1999 of cancer after he served a 10-year sentence in federal prison. The American Civil Liberties Union also won a judgment against San Jacinto County for three Kentucky residents and a Baytown man. The county was ordered to pay $40,000 per year until each person named in the class action lawsuit received $1,500. News reports at the time indicated thousands of people may have joined the class action lawsuit. The long-running corruption scheme was the subject of a book and movie, “Terror on I-59.” http://www.easttexasnews.com/Enterprise/News/Ind/week42_march6_2008/story2.html

  2. Anonymous says:

    Outrageous,civil terrorism!

  3. I am not familiar with East Texas or the persons mentioned above. But I do hope the Tenaha law enforcers get nice long jail sentences. Cops in prison get special attention and these thugs have certainly earned it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Since it will undoubtedly take a LONG Texas time to sort this matter out legally, perhaps semi-permanent “Detour While Justice under Construction” signs should be erected on any road leading in or out of Teneha.

  5. Fed Up says:

    Well, this news makes me glad I do not own a car.

    What MONSTEROUS behavior!

    I don’t know anymore which is worse, behavior like this that knowingly steals from others or the typical right wing mentality (that same mentality that burned witches who floated on the water).

    My experience with right wingers does indicate to me that they often think they were just born knowing everything…like who is a money launderer. This is the entire basis for their vigilante advocacy. They are dead serious, they actually believe they are so smart, so “gifted” with these special powers from God that they don’t need to have any evidence of ANYTHING.

  6. they often think they were just born knowing everything…like who is a money launderer. This is the entire basis for their vigilante advocacy.
    I doubt these guys believed they were involved in vigilante advocacy. Its seems far more likely they were just plain old corrupt officials. Money laundering charges were just a way to feed the corruption.

    The same corruption can be seen in so many in congress including Charles Rangel, William Jefferson, and Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Corruption has no party affiliation and infests all levels of government and all sizes of corporations.

    Corruption destroys our faith in our governments and in our corporations. Progressives see the corruption in corporations as the worst and they respond by seeking more government power and control as a counterbalance. Conservatives see corruption of government officials as tearing at the very fabric of American excellence and stability and seek to limit the power and scope of government.

    In the end, conservatives and progressives spend their time battling over who is right with the net result that corruption grows unimpeded.

    There are answers. But they aren’t pleasant and as soon as they are proposed, one side or the other will attack them. I firmly believe that as Americans, we have the government and the corporations we deserve. We are more invested in winning. or in preventing the other side from winning, than in solving the problem. We as a group are simply unwilling to do the things that will create a just, moral and ethical society.

  7. Richard says:

    I read an interview with a pig, can’t remember where right now, but it went like this:
    Pig: I can always tell when they are lying.
    Interviewer: But, can you tell when they are telling the the truth?
    Pig: They’re always lying.

    Kinda funny, but revealing.

    It is the vast majority of pigs who are corrupt. Not a small minority as the lying pigs usually assert.

  8. Richard, that is a great interview – I imagine it was thought to be both a joke and a fact at the same time.

    As to Richard Jehn, I’ve noticed you’ve been asking that and no one is answering you – puzzling…….

    I know Richard Jehn was going to work on his newest cook-book (I have one he sent me that’s very good), and I’m hoping he’s buried in piles of paper as he edits his newest edition.

    If you look at the side-bar, you’ll see his name; you can link on to that, and see his last post was October 3, 2009.

    Since he’s taken some real harassment from some who have commented on his previous posts, maybe he figures ‘to hell with it’ – I don’t think anyone should let a blog interfere with their productive lives, and I’m betting Richard Jehn feels the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.