DALLAS (AP) — Authorities in a Texas town under investigation for allegedly shaking down motorists for their cash sometimes used the travelers' children as bargaining chips in their attempt to seize money, records show.
Documents reviewed by The Associated Press describe the extent to which children became pawns as authorities in Tenaha, a town near the Louisiana border, accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars through highway traffic stops that have since sparked a federal investigation.
"They basically said, 'If you all want to leave without going to jail tonight and take your kids with you, then you'll sign over your money right now,'" Jennifer Boatright, a Houston mother of two, said in an interview describing her encounter with local officials.
The Justice Department has been investigating authorities in Tenaha and Shelby County since they were named in a 2008 class action lawsuit alleging that a drug interdiction program initiated by the town of 1,160 was in fact a scheme to seize cash. The suit asserted that innocent motorists, most of them black or ethnic minorities, were stopped on U.S. Highway 59 and threatened with money laundering charges if they didn't agree to forfeit their cash.
The AP reported last October that more than $800,000 was collected from the traffic stops in less than a year and that, in some cases, motorists who fit the profile of drug traffickers received leniency in exchange for their cash.
The involvement of children adds another element to a case that has especially troubled critics of civil asset forfeiture laws. Those laws allow authorities to seize cash or other property if they believe it's linked to criminal activity, even in cases where defendants aren't found guilty.
In two of the Tenaha incidents, authorities separated a small child from one couple pulled over in a traffic stop and threatened to do the same to another, according to case documents.
"This just shows how law enforcement can place the desire for profits above the interests of children," said Scott Bullock, senior attorney for the Institute of Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm headquartered in Arlington, Va., that has studied civil asset forfeitures nationally.
In a lawsuit filed last month, restaurant owner Dale Agostini of Washington, D.C., seeks unspecified damages for what he says was a trumped-up money laundering charge that landed him and his fiancee in jail for a night in September 2007. When the couple went to jail, their 16-month-old son was turned over to Child Protective Services, the suit says.
According to records for the traffic stop, Tenaha deputy city marshal Barry Washington pulled over Agostini's vehicle because it was going too slow in a "passing only" lane. A search by a drug-sniffing police dog led to the discovery of $50,000 in Agostini's luggage.
In his suit, Agostini says he explained that he often dealt in cash transactions in his restaurant business. But Washington said he was going to arrest everyone in the vehicle and contact CPS because "everybody is lying," the suit says.
Agostini asserts in the suit that authorities even denied his request to kiss the boy goodbye.
A year later, the money laundering charge was dropped and the $50,000 was returned after Agostini hired an attorney who provided records verifying the restaurant owner's business history.
In another incident in 2007, Boatright, her boyfriend and their two children were pulled over for what Washington's report said was "driving in the left lane for over a half mile without passing and crossing over (the) white line." Washington wrote that he searched the car because he smelled marijuana and found $6,000 in the console.
The couple was cited for money laundering and child endangerment. But they avoided going to jail and surrendering their children, ages 18 months and 12 years, by immediately agreeing to forfeit the cash, according to a court document spelling out the arrangement.
Boatright said she felt she had no choice but to accept the deal, presented just hours after the traffic stop by Shelby County District Attorney Lynda Kaye Russell.
"I knew we hadn't done anything wrong, but they weren't taking my kids," Boatright said.
She said she and her boyfriend were able to recover their money, which she said came from a tax refund, after they hired an attorney.
Attorneys for the law enforcement officials involved, who have since left their positions, said the pending litigation prevents them from commenting.
Washington, who is black, said in a deposition that he received at least $20,000 in bonuses from the forfeiture funds.
The former Texas state trooper said God, speaking to him through a beam of light, told him to take the position in Tenaha and directed him to stop drug traffickers on U.S. Highway 59.
"I swore an oath to God that I would get out there and give him all that I have in what I do, and so that's the way I do it," he testified.