Howard Witt/MCT/Newscom

Howard Witt/MCT/Newscom

Between 2006 and 2008, Tenaha, Texas, established itself as a hotbed for civil forfeiture abuse. Tenaha police executed dozens of traffic stops in which vast sums of money and property were seized, though no criminal charges were filed against drivers or passengers.

Tenaha’s antics were so egregious that Texas lawmakers felt compelled to enact modest civil forfeiture reforms, but not before a class action lawsuit was filed against the city. Regrettably, the reforms and the lawsuit both happened only after hundreds of unsuspecting victims were subjected to threats, coercion, and outright theft by officers of the law.

One of the victims of this abuse, Dale Agostini, had set out to buy restaurant equipment with his fiancée, his young child, and an employee. Stopped by Tenaha police for allegedly driving on the wrong side of the road, Agostini’s car was searched and a treasure trove totaling $50,000 in cash was discovered. Although Agostini had proof that the money was clean, he was arrested for money laundering, his cash was seized, and his child was turned over to child protective services. Agostini was never charged and his child was returned, but it took months before he got his money back.

Sadly, Mr. Agostini’s ordeal is not unique. Jennifer Boatright, Ron Henderson, and their two children were taking a road trip when Tenaha police officers stopped and questioned them before searching their car for drugs. While they found none, the officers did find over $6,000 in cash and hauled the family down to the police station. The county’s district attorney threatened them with criminal charges including child endangerment and money laundering—unless, of course, they signed over all legal right to their money. Forced into making an unenviable choice, the pair forfeited the cash and got out of Tenaha as quickly as they could.

These are just two of the nearly 150 harrowing accounts in which innocent men and women were made to believe they would lose their children or their freedom unless they “willingly” parted with their legal property.

Civil asset forfeiture allows money or property to be seized and forfeited if the authorities can demonstrate that it was used during the commission of a crime or constitutes the “fruit” of a crime. The catch is that in most states law enforcement keeps a healthy portion (or all) of the proceeds from these seizures, and the evidentiary standards are low. In theory, such a tool for law enforcement makes sense, but in practice the profit motive prompts some law enforcement officers to engage in abusive shakedowns.

At the height of its civil forfeiture racket, Tenaha law enforcement used some of its new-found riches to dole out donations to local organizations and to buy hundreds of dollars of candy and a $524 popcorn machine—even though Texas law requires that civil forfeiture proceeds be used only for “law-enforcement purposes.” The rest of the profit from the seizures was used to help pay for a new police station and to reward those cops who had seized the funds.

In 2012, Tenaha settled the class action lawsuit. As part of the settlement, Tenaha police must now film all traffic stops, and the proceeds from future forfeitures must be used to fund officer training programs, among other things. Texas law now requires that all seized property be accounted for and bars officers from paying themselves using forfeiture proceeds.

Tenaha perfected the dark art of “highway robbery,” but, thanks in part to the Texas legislature, it has hopefully turned its back to the temptations of civil forfeiture abuse.