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Under Civil Forfeiture Laws, You Can Lose Everything Even If You Are Not Charged With a Crime

In 2007, a couple was driving from Houston to Linden, Texas, which is near the TX-LA border. The couple does this trip every year in springtime. This time, they decided to buy a car there, and they put some of their cash savings into the center console of the car.

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They drove through the town Tenaha, TX, and they noticed that a police car was following. Near the town limits, the police officer pulled them over.

He asked the driver, Ron Henderson, if he knew he was driving in the left lane without doing any passing. He told the officer that he was in the left lane so that the officer could get on the highway.

The police officer asked if there were drugs in the car, and the officer asked to search the car.

The officers then found the cash and a glass pipe that the woman in the car, Jennifer Boatright, said was a gift. They were taken to the police station, and they saw tables that were piled with confiscated items, such as cell phones. jewelry, DVD players and more. The police said that the couple looked like drug couriers. They were coming from Houston, which is a known area for the distribution of illegal drugs. And they were driving to Linden, a place that is known to receive illegal drugs. He said that the children could be decoys.

The district attorney for the county came an hour later and said that they could either face felony charges for money laundering and child endangerment, or they could sign their cash over to the town. Their children would not be taken into custody and they could leave.

The couple could not believe that this could be happening in America. Actually cash-for-freedom is a typical deal in Tehaha and various versions of this tactic are being used across the US.

Boatright and Henderson were outraged and they helped to launch a class action lawsuit that challenges the abuse of a legal tactic known as civil asset forfeiture.

The concept of asset forfeiture or cash seizure makes sense in a way. It allows the police to confiscate property or cash that was gotten illegally. In many states, those assets can be seized by the police and allowed to go right into fighting crime. In Tulsa, police have a Cadillac Escalade that has the words on it, This Used to Be a Drug Dealer’s Car, Now It’s Ours!” Other county police departments have used confiscated drug cash to buy a surveillance drone and many other items used to fight crime.

Generally, you do not need to be found guilty to have any of your assets taken by police. In some states, suspicion is enough for the police to detain you and take your property. You also do not even need to be charged with a crime or be accused of a crime. Unlike in cases of criminal forfeiture, which mandates that the person must be convicted of a criminal offense before property is taken, civil forfeiture means that a lawsuit is essentially filed against your possessions, no matter if you are guilty or innocent.

According to court case precedent, in these sorts of cases, many Constitutional protections are not valid. A piece of your property does not have the same rights that you do. The property does not have a right to a lawyer, and in most states, there is no presumption of being innocent. Owners who want to fight this will find that paying for a lawyer costs much more than the value of their assets. In Washington DC, you have to pay $2500 just to challenge a police seizure, and it can take years to resolve the matter.

In the case of Boatright and Henderson, they complained to the county as they tried to get their money back. The district attorney hit them with another surprise. They were warned that if they did not sign the waiver giving their property to the police department, and they continued to fight it, they could be actually indicted for a felony. Their custody of their children also was threatened. They decided to fight anyway.

They found a lawyer, after much effort, who takes these civil forfeiture cases, and he was very familiar with the operation in Tenaha. In a few weeks of working on a class action lawsuit, the lawyers got many calls from other victims of the Tenaha police. The suit was joined by several others. One of them was a black woman from Ohio who have $4500 taken from her, and a Hispanic man who had to give the police $2400. The suit accused the Tenaha mayor and other officials in the town of operating an illegal search and seizure operation, and not doing it for law enforcement purposes but to enrich the town.

In the end of the class action suit, the officials in Tenaha and Shelby County agreed to a settlement. They denied that they did anything wrong. Since this class action suit, which received national attention, legislators in Texas banned roadside waivers and have restricted the use of forfeiture funds in some ways. The funds cannot be used to buy frivolous items for police departments and cannot be used for police bonuses. However, the settlement and the law is not reducing the obstacles for the owners who want to get their property back. It also does not change the fact that many police department budgets depend upon the forfeiture revenues.

Boatright and Henderson to this day worry when they see a police car, and they always make sure they do not have substantial amounts of money with them in the car at any time.