Highway Robbery

Monday, February 9th, 2009

Asset forfeiture outrages have been generating great copy for 20 years. The public gets angry, and maybe a few people spotlighted in the local newspaper investigation get some portion of the property back.  But then it’s back to business as usual, at least until the next report.

The latest investigation comes from the San Antonio Express-News, which looked into the lucrative forfeiture practices of the town of Tenaha, Texas. The paper found that though the tiny town of 1,000 seized property from 140 motorists between 2006 and 2008, less than half were charged with an actual crime.

…David Guillory calls the roadside stops and seizures in Tenaha “highway piracy,” undertaken by a couple of law enforcement officers whose agencies get to keep most of what was seized.

Guillory is suing officials in Tenaha and Shelby County on behalf of Dorman and nine other clients whose property was confiscated. All were African-Americans driving either rentals or vehicles with out-of-state plates.

Guillory alleges in the lawsuit that while his clients were detained, they were presented with an ultimatum: waive your rights to your property in exchange for a promise to be released and not be criminally charged.

In one case, they threatened to toss a great-grandmother in a jail cell on drug charges unless she signed over the $4,000 she says were her life savings that police found in her car. According to the Express-News, court records make no mention of any evidence she committed a crime.

It’s not difficult to see why someone would sign such an agreement, given that fighting even bogus charges could end up costing more than the value of the property the government is seizing.

Tenaha’s mayor makes no apologies:

Tenaha Mayor George Bowers, 80, defended the seizures, saying they allowed a cash-poor city the means to add a second police car in a two-policeman town and help pay for a new police station.

“It’s always helpful to have any kind of income to expand your police force,” Bowers said.

Apparently even if you have to steal it at gunpoint.

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40 Responses to “Highway Robbery”

  1. #1 |  Edwin Sheldon | 

    Our law enforcement priorities: locking up non-violent drug offenders, but letting sheriffs rob at gunpoint. Where’s the problem?

  2. #2 |  Balloon Maker | 

    Sometimes I wish there was a hell. It’s usually when I’m reading theagitator.

  3. #3 |  seeker6079 | 

    I don’t know why anybody is surprised. (Yeah, I know that nobody HERE is, but still…)

    Texas used to have a law whereby the fines for speeding on a state highway went to the localities in which it occurred. Given that a lot of non-superhighways in Texas tend to go right through the main streets of small towns this seemed to make sense. What local law enforcement was doing, though, was turning the town into one big speed trap. (One trick, for example, was to have the speed limit drop at the city limits, but the speed sign being later. The speed trap, needless to say, was later.) The highway robbery committed by local county mounties was getting so out of hand that even the Texas legislature (normally LOCAL with many capital L’s) had to step in and stop it.

  4. #4 |  seeker6079 | 

    And am I the only one not surprised that a Texas town tucked up near the Louisiana border is shaking down black folks? C’mon. The mayor is 80. He’s of a generation of southern politicians that is still, deep down, very bitter about having the word “nigger” removed from their public nomenclature.

  5. #5 |  Mike | 

    I’m not surprised at all. I used to frequently travel through West Texas on business. I and several colleagues got speeding tickets that worked like so:

    1) cop rolls up behind you, probably runs plates
    2) pulls you over, gives you ticket for speeding 10+ mph faster than you were actually going.
    3) figure you won’t travel all the way back across the state to fight it
    4) profit!

  6. #6 |  Mike | 

    Actually, I’m wondering if these guys are refugees from the big scandal in Northern Louisiana where they doing this exact same thing.

  7. #7 |  Mikestermike | 

    *Sigh* Yehp, that’s my home state. If it is not one thing, it is another. I s ANY state not full of these 70’s movie cliches?

  8. #8 |  AMW | 

    I had a classmate returning to Indiana after disembarking from a cruise in Florida. Nicest lady you ever wanted to know…close to fifty and finishing her bachelors degree. She and her husband were involved in an auto accident on the freeway, and her husband was killed. The cops took a couple thousand dollars she had on her…apparently in whatever county she was in it was not necessary to find drugs…a big wad of cash equaled drug dealer.

    One of the many little grains of sand that shifted me away from conservative to libertarian over time.

  9. #9 |  Aresen | 

    Tenaha Mayor George Bowers, 80, defended the seizures, saying they allowed a cash-poor city the means to add a second police car in a two-policeman town and help pay for a new police station.

    Let’s backdate that a few centuries:

    Tenaha Mayor The Sherriff of Nottingham George Bowers, 80, defended the seizures, saying they allowed a cash-poor city fief the means to add a second police car warhorse in a two-policemanhenchman town barony and help pay for a new police station donjon.

  10. #10 |  Sky | 

    Can we say “racial profiling”?

  11. #11 |  Marty | 

    at least the mayor’s honest when he says,“It’s always helpful to have any kind of income to expand your police force.”

    He didn’t throw out the ‘we’re hurting criminals’ bullshit.
    He didn’t say that it’s ‘for the children’.

    He flat out admitted that it’s the scheme they use to fund their coffers. I’d say he deserves some kinda plaque for honesty…

  12. #12 |  ZappaCrappa | 

    Astute government thinking actually…let’s steal it from the unwary defensless travelers and not from our citizens that vote for us. BRILLIANT!

    I have emailed the Tenaha chamber of commerce and told them I am cancelling my vacation plans and, as of now, will no longer be staying at the Tenaha “Dew Drop Inn Motor Court” complete with complimentary breakfast biscuit and grape jelly packet during their annual “Fuck Your First Cousin Festival” and will have find another form of entertainment for my vacation that, unfortunately, won’t include watching 5 toothed inbreds get more inbred….I was REALLY looking forward to it damn it! You haven’t lived until you’ve seen some backwoods Texas yokels treating their cousins like a prize heifer back on the farm. I can say that….I live in Texas : )

  13. #13 |  billy-jay | 


    Only if it’s attached to his forehead with railroad spikes.

  14. #14 |  Adrian | 

    Sometimes I feel like I’m living in the 50’s or 60’s. Radley I’ve got a similar situation that may be occurring in Arizona with a city within the metro area of Phoenix regarding stealing vehicles of people accused of DUIs. Shoot me an email if you want details.
    -Adrian Little

  15. #15 |  Mike T | 

    Things won’t change until the police start getting treated like armed robbers when they behave like this. As far as I am concerned, there is literally no moral difference between an armed robber and a cop who behaves like this. The state cannot legalize that which is inherently a crime.

  16. #16 |  supercat | 

    Let’s backdate that a few centuries

    I’m not an expert on feudalism (far from it), but my understanding was that such conduct by the feudal lords was generally not particularly forbidden by the King, provided that persons particularly important to Him (the King) were allowed to travel unmolested.

    By contrast, the totalitarian anarchist (kleptocratic) tactics used by many of today’s governments are explicitly forbidden by the Supreme Law of the Land, thus rendering them completely illegitimate. By that standard, maybe the Middle Ages weren’t so bad.

  17. #17 |  Aresen | 

    @ Supercat

    Yes and no.

    A feudal lord swore to protect his vassals and rule them justly. Since he was also a knight, he further swore to protect the innocent and to defend them from wrongdoers. The fact that these notions were universally ignored doesn’t change the fact that the feudal lords were technically violating what, in those times, could have been called the “supreme law of the land.”

    As for today’s governments, by the “Supreme Law of the Land” are you referring to the Constitution as interpreted by the SCOTUS?

    (Just snarking back at you for over-interpreting what I’d intended as a humourous snark.)

  18. #18 |  CharlesWT | 

    Trial of Dymond Milburn in Police Assault Case Ends With Deadlocked Jury

  19. #19 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Radley, after reading your last four entries (entries, not the comments) I have to ask if any readers are considering cutting bait and trying another fishing hole. I’m all for effort, but it sure seems like a brick wall we’re banging our heads against. Might be the right time to find another country (what with economic collapse and all coming to this one).

    For those that disagree, when (if ever) is enough enough?

  20. #20 |  CharlesWT | 

    Better link:

    Trial of Dymond Milburn in Police Assault Case Ends With Deadlocked Jury

  21. #21 |  supercat | 

    As for today’s governments, by the “Supreme Law of the Land” are you referring to the Constitution as interpreted by the SCOTUS?

    I am referring to the Constitution, period. Nothing in the Constitution says that it is subordinate to the decrees of the Nine.

    Might be the right time to find another country (what with economic collapse and all coming to this one).

    If the forces of anti-individualism that have undermined other countries manage undermine this one, they would use its resources to ensure that nobody on earth could be free of their grasp.

  22. #22 |  Andrew | 

    Allow me to quote Vox Day:

    “NWA was right. Police in the USA are little more than a gang armed with guns and badges, roaming the streets demanding “respect” from the public as they collect the protection money known as “fines”.”

    Truer words were never written.

  23. #23 |  CharlesWT | 

    Mistrial declared in Dymond Milburn’s alleged assault on cop

  24. #24 |  bob42 | 

    Kenaha is located in Shelby county. In both 2004 and 2008 voters there supported republican candidates by 20 to 30 point margins.

    There are republicans, and then there are Texas Republicans.

    Knuckle dragging authoritarian racist theocrats, and damn proud of it.

  25. #25 |  UCrawford | 

    This story sounds familiar…a lot like what happened in the town formerly known as New Rome, Ohio a few years ago.


    Maybe this story will have a happy ending just like that one did…with the township being dissolved and every policeman and politician essentially fired.

  26. #26 |  perlhaqr | 

    1.) Rope. Tree. Mayor. You do the math.

    2.) Marty: I’d say he deserves some kinda plaque for honesty…

    Plaque, tombstone, whatever.

    3.) Boyd: You got any suggestions on anywhere that’s actually better, and not simply different?

  27. #27 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    @perlhaqr 26

    IS THERE a point where you decide to leave?

    Options: Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Canada. I’m also partial to Chile, Swizterland, Estonia, Hong Kong, Finland and the Bahamas. Let’s not forget Japan, Mauritius, and a couple little towns filling with ex-pats in Mexico. Just thought of Italy and Fiji, and South Africa and Peru are countries I’ve seen on a map. There. A list of countries picked by an undefined subjective criteria.

    I know you can say “But Singapore doesn’t even have Dr. Pepper available for purchase!”–or some other single point of contention.

  28. #28 |  Kristen | 

    Or Estonia, although not sure how they’re doing without Laar.

  29. #29 |  seeker6079 | 

    “Singapore doesn’t even have Dr. Pepper ”

    “Bwa ha ha ha ha!!!!”
    The Illuminatii.

  30. #30 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    I included Estonia.

    I almost put “Maine”. But that’s more like another world, not another country.

  31. #31 |  Woog | 

    “Apparently even if you have to steal it at gunpoint.”

    Why is this point such a big deal? After all, this method has been employed for obtaining money by those in power since the inception of “taxing power” in this country, and those countries before it.

    The powers that be simply have the largest armed gang around, and are willing to use it.

  32. #32 |  Police Officers or Thugs? | 

    […] Radley Balko notes, yes it is nice to have extra income even when you have to steal it at gunpoint. If private […]

  33. #33 |  Cynical In CA | 

    Let’s not lose sight of the fact that these spectacular and emotion-generating instances of armed robbery by the State are the minority compared to the all-pervasive and everyday instances of armed robbery by the State in the form of income tax withholding, sales taxes and all other forms of “legal” taxation.

    If they get you to ask the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the right answers.

  34. #34 |  raven | 

    The thing that really astounds me is that possession of the Legal Tender of the Land is considered to be indicative of criminal behavior. Does this then mean those with the most money are the biggest criminals? Has this ever been challenged in court?

    The whole “asset forfeiture” law is bullshit-extortion plain and simple, “give us your stuff or you are going to jail.” No trial, no conviction, not even charges. How did we get here?

  35. #35 |  Texas police commiting highway piracy at Klintron’s Brain | 

    […] (via The Agitator) […]

  36. #36 |  Nancy Irving | 

    This is what happens when the public demands services but refuses to be taxed to pay for them.

  37. #37 |  Texas police commiting highway piracy | Azrael's Lair | 

    […] (via The Agitator) […]

  38. #38 |  perlhaqr | 

    Boyd: Perhaps you’ll consider it a single point of contention, but, do any of those countries you listed have laws regarding the private ownership of firearms even as good as the terrible state of such law in America?

    Admittedly, if The Lightbringer fucks that up, it makes a lot of places a lot more palatable to me. Once that’s gone, a number of those options may really become “better”, instead of merely “different”.

  39. #39 |  Texas police commiting highway piracy | Mutate! | 

    […] (via The Agitator) […]

  40. #40 |  SJPD Victim | 

    This sounds like something that San Jose, California Police Officers: Tom Tortoricci & Gabriel Cuenca Would do! We had an incident with them in 2006 and I was threatened that they would falsely arrest me on trumped up charges if I spoke about it! These sickos are still on the streets!