If you’re African American and reading this story right now, you’re one of the lucky ones.
That’s because you’ll probably never do what more than 140 folks – who are either Black or traveled with Blacks – did between June 2006 and June 2008: drive through a mosquito-sized east Texas town named Tenaha, where they had their cars, cash, jewelry and other belongings jacked – by the law.
That’s right, in Tenaha, where more than 40 percent of the 1,000 residents live below the poverty line and there are more boarded up businesses than open ones, police have found an unseemly, but very effective, way to jolt the town’s stagnant economy. They force motorists to star in a real-life episode of “The Twilight Zone,” pulling them over and offering an ugly ultimatum: “Give up your goods, or go to jail.”
More times than not, The Los Angeles Times reported in its Wednesday edition, out-of-towners opt for the easier way out by handing over their effects and moseying on out of dodge.
In one instance, the Times reports, a Black grandmother from Akron, Ohio, surrendered $4,000 in cash after Tenaha Police pulled her over. In another case, an interracial couple from Houston handed over more than $6,000 after police threatened to snatch their children and put them into foster care. Neither the grandmother nor the couple were charged with or convicted of any crime, according to the Times.
George Bowers, mayor of the four-square-mile town where even his City Hall office has a broken window, rebutted the notion that Tenaha is trying to make money off the poor souls – mostly Black souls – unfortunate enough to wander in through that particular stretch of state highway that connects Houston and Louisiana.
"We try to enforce the law here," he told the Times. "We're not doing this to raise money. That's all I'm going to say at this point."
Authorities in Tenaha say that drug trafficking is common there, and the law permits search and seizure of suspects under the provisions of the state asset-forfeiture law, the Times reports. Thus, drug money and other property used in the commission of a crime may be confiscated legitimately and put into the jurisdiction’s coffers.
That’s not the way civil rights advocates see it, however. In their eyes, Tenaha has found a slick way of adopting an “illegal 'stop and seize' practice of targeting, stopping, detaining, searching, and often seizing property from apparently non-White citizens and those traveling with non-White citizens," according to a class-action lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Texas.
"The whole thing is disproportionately targeted toward minorities, particularly African Americans," said David Guillory, an attorney in nearby Nacogdoches who filed the federal lawsuit. "Every one of these people is pulled over and told they did something, like, 'You drove too close to the white line.' That's not in the penal code, but it sounds plausible. None of these people have been charged with a crime; none were engaged in anything that looked criminal. The sole factor is that they had something that looked valuable."
Guillory told the Times that he pored through oodles of Shelby County court records from “2006 to 2008 and discovered nearly 200 cases in which Tenaha police seized cash and property from motorists. In about 50 of the cases, suspects were charged with drug possession.” In 147 others, Guillory said, court records showed “the police seized cash, jewelry, cell phones and sometimes even automobiles from motorists but never found any contraband or charged them with any crime. Of those, Guillory said he managed to contact 40 of the motorists directly – and discovered that all but one of them were Black,” according to the Times.