A two-decade-old state law that grants authorities the power to seize property used in crimes is wielded by some agencies against people who never are charged with — much less convicted of — criminal activity.
Law enforcement authorities in this East Texas town of 1,000 people seized property from at least 140 motorists between 2006 and 2008, and, to date, filed criminal charges against fewer than half, according to a review of court documents by the San Antonio Express-News.
This is the problem with asset forfeiture laws, they flip the presumption of innocence upside down. The laws were ostensibly for the purpose of preventing criminals from profiting from their crimes, allowing the government to seize cash, jewels, homes and vehicles that were bought with drug money or used in the commission of a crime. But if you can seize cash or property without ever even charging the person with any crime, much less convicting them of it, the 4th amendment is pretty much turned into confetti.
Linda Dorman, an Akron, Ohio, great-grandmother had $4,000 in cash taken from her by local authorities when she was stopped while driving through town after visiting Houston in April 2007. Court records make no mention that anything illegal was found in her van. She’s still hoping for the return of what she calls “her life savings.”
Dorman’s attorney, 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.
He said most did as Dorman did, signing the waiver to avoid jail.
It’s time for an all-out legal assault on these laws. The courts must overturn them or the legislatures must repeal them. Guillory is right, this is nothing more than legalized piracy.