More Driving While Black (DWB): Are Parts of the US a “Police State”?

A few months back, in the Los Angeles Times Howard Witt had an important article on a lawsuit alleging that police officers in a Texas town are using property confiscation laws to create police-state type situations. One is Tenaha, in northeast Texas near the Louisiana border:

You can drive into this dusty fleck of a town . . . if you’re African American, but you might not be able to drive out of it — at least not with your car, your cash, your jewelry or other valuables. That’s because the police here allegedly have found a way to strip motorists, many of them black, of their property without ever charging them with a crime. Instead they offer out-of-towners a grim choice: Sign over your belongings to the town, or face felony charges of money laundering or other serious crimes. More than 140 people reluctantly accepted that deal from June 2006 to June 2008, according to court records. Among them were a black grandmother from Akron, Ohio, who surrendered $4,000 in cash after Tenaha police pulled her over, and an interracial couple from Houston, who gave up more than $6,000 after police threatened to seize their children and put them into foster care, the court documents show. Neither the grandmother nor the couple were charged with or convicted of any crime.

The town officials claim to be trying to deal with drug traffickers:

But civil rights lawyers call Tenaha’s practice something else: highway robbery. . . . David Guillory, an attorney in nearby Nacogdoches who filed the federal lawsuit, said he combed through 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. But in 147 others, Guillory said the court records showed, the police seized cash, jewelry, cellphones and sometimes even automobiles from motorists but never found any contraband or charged them with any crime.

In our “justice” system the police and other authorities often hold the trump cards, unless you are upper class and very well-off, and can afford expensive legal fees:

Once the motorists were detained, the police and the Shelby County district attorney quickly drew up legal papers presenting them with an option: Waive their rights to their cash and property or face felony charges for crimes such as money laundering — and the prospect of having to hire a lawyer and return to Shelby County multiple times to attend court sessions to contest the charges.

However, this is bigger than a little east Texas town of 1000 or so. Latino and Black drivers in the Southwest face this problem in numerous other areas:

According to a prominent Texas state legislator, police agencies across the state are wielding the asset-forfeiture law more aggressively to supplement their shrinking operating budgets.

Recently, Greg Moses, editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolencehas added his insightful commentary on what is going on. In towns like Tenaha police can detain

people for no reason, take their cash, spend it, meanwhile filing no charges of wrongdoing. All the while, the authorities of East Texas or wherever could count on a federal court order that would allow them to go after the banking, tax, and employment records of their innocent victims if they tried to get their money back. . . . The discovery motions also revealed that collection accounts were not always well kept. One front-line collector argued that he kept bulk numbers only and could not provide evidence of how much money was taken on any single occasion. To get your money back from these actors, they may demand that you prove it’s not contraband and then prove how much they took.

In defending against the lawsuit a local official has sought

to use the forfeiture funds to pay for her defense. In early October [2009], the ACLU filed a brief with the Texas Attorney General’s Office to prevent the forfeiture funds from being spent to defend alleged abuse of forfeiture powers.

Numerous research and policy studies, including some by the ACLU, have shown that this type of racial profiling is all too common in the United States today.

In recent years many law enforcement agencies have used a policy of screening and stopping motorists just because of their racial characteristics—what black Americans call the offense of “driving while black” (DWB). A recent ACLU report summarized racial profiling studies involving numerous police departments as showing “large differences in the rate of stops and searches for African Americans and Latinos, and often, Indians (Native Americans) and Asians, even though these groups are less likely to have contraband.” For example, black rappers and other black musicians have been explicitly targeted for special surveillance, stopping, and searching without reasonable suspicion by police departments in New York, Miami, and Miami Beach. In addition, in numerous states police officers have been documented stopping motorists of color on vague notions that they might possibly have drugs. State judges in California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Minnesota have periodically issued orders against such racial profiling, in some cases as a result of studies showing significant racial disparities. (Sources here)