Dale Agostini steered his vehicle down Highway 59, cutting though seemingly endless acres of East Texas pine forest and red dirt on his way to make a business deal.
Agostini’s fiancée, their 16-month-old son, Amir, and a cook in Agostini’s restaurant were in the car that day in September 2007, with more than $50,000 cash that Agostini hoped to use for new restaurant equipment, according to a 2008 class-action civil rights lawsuit he filed in federal court. Cash allowed him to negotiate better deals, according to court documents. Everyone in the car that day was was black and most had immigrated to the U.S.
When the group got close to Tenaha, Texas, a rural town about an hour southwest of Shreveport, La., a constable pulled Agostini over. Highway 59 is a well-known drug trafficking route and the officer summoned a drug-sniffing dog and backup. The constable told Agostini the dog “was a warrant,” searched the car, found the cash and accused Agostini of money-laundering, according to the lawsuit.
The officer arrested the adults and summoned child protective services workers for Amir. Later, after Agostini showed proof that the money came from his business, the prosecution fell apart, according to court documents. Agostini was never charged with a crime and was released from jail. His son was returned. And after several months and considerable expense, he got his money back.
From 2006 to 2008, as many as 1,000 black and Latino drivers traversing Highway 59 near Tenaha were pulled over, searched and had cash or other valuables wrongly seized, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The suit, filed by an East Texas attorney on behalf of people of color or who appeared to be and were were stopped in Shelby County, was settled this month with help from the ACLU.
Once stopped on the side of the road, drivers were offered two options by law enforcers, according to the lawsuit. The motorists could either sign a form forfeiting their cash, car or other valuables, or they would face felony charges, according to the suit. If a driver opted for an arrest and a chance to see a judge, any children in the car would be turned over to child protective services, according to court documents.
“This was, plain and simple, highway robbery,” said Elora Mukherjee, a New York-based attorney at the ACLU Racial Justice Program. “The facts in Tenaha were some of the worst cases of racial profiling abuses of asset forfeiture that we have seen around the country.”
In Texas and several other states, law enforcement agencies may seize crime-linked cash and valuables and may sometimes use the proceeds for policing. In Tenaha, law enforcement agencies used the money for equipment and salary increases, according to the suit.
Both city and county officials in the Teneha area have denied wrongdoing. They agreed to pay nearly $600,000 in legal fees and to have officers record all traffic stops. Under the terms of the settlement, the proceeds of property and cash seizures must be used to purchase audio and video recording equipment for traffic stops, to fund racial profiling education or given to nonprofit agencies, Mukherjee said. A court-appointed monitor will examine the seizure spending four times each year.
“In my heart of hearts, I really do not believe that there was any kind of profiling going on,” said Rick Campbell, the Shelby County judge who oversees county agencies and helps manage the county budget. But even if the county had won the case, legal costs alone would neared $1.5 million and devastated the local budget, Campbell said.
Many of the city and county officials named in the suit are no longer in office. The Shelby County constable who stopped Agonstini and the district attorney have resigned. A district attorney’s office investigator named in the suit has retired. Voters in June turned Tenaha’s mayor out of office after 48 years, ending the term of the longest-serving mayor in Texas history.
Campbell was appointed to the county’s top administrative job in 2009, after the county judge who served during the height of seizure activity on Highway 59 died of cancer.
Campbell said he stands behind the stops. At least 70 percent of the stops involved white drivers, he said. The officer who stopped Agostini and many others on Highway 59 was experienced in another part of the state, where he never got into trouble, Campbell said.
“I do feel like peace officers, when they are out there, need to be able to bring common sense to their work,” said Campbell. “I mean when you look, most inmates in the jail aren’t white. … There were stops where people had $600,000 in the car, but they weren’t buying drugs?”
The officer testified under oath why he suspected some drivers were involved in criminal activity. He said he suspected Puerto Rican drivers or passengers from New York stopped during the middle of the week and who seemed nervous when questioned.
Most of those who surrendered money were carrying smaller sums than was Agostini, according to the suit. And most were black or Latino, according to the ACLU's Mukherjee. From 2006 to 2008, officers seized at least $3 million from more than 140 cases, according to the ACLU.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating, said Mukherjee.
In 2011, Texas changed its forfeiture and seizure laws as a result of news reports about Highway 59. Law enforcement agencies must now account for every cent collected though a seizure or property sale. And law enforcement agencies cannot use the funds to boost officer salaries or to pay bonuses without the permission of an elected body.
There were other instances of asset forfeiture abuses in Texas before the law was changed, the ACLU said. The district attorney's office in Montgomery County used seized money to buy a margarita machine that prosecutors used at the county fair, winning a prize for best margarita. And former Kimble County D.A. Ron Sutton used asset-forfeiture funds to take his entire staff, a district judge and their spouses on a trip to Hawaii. Sutton pleaded guilty in 2010 to felony charges of misusing funds.
FILE - This May 11, 2012, file photo shows Nusrat Chadoury, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, National ACLU National Security Program, talking with reporters following oral arguments on the ACLU No Fly List challenge, in Portland, Ore. A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that a lawsuit over the government's no-fly list can go forward in a lower court in Oregon."More than two years ago, our clients were placed on a secret government blacklist that denied their right to travel without an explanation or chance to confront the evidence against them," Nusrat Choudhury, an ACLU lawyer who argued the case, said in a statement. "The Constitution requires the government to provide our clients a fair chance to clear their names and a court will finally hear their claims." (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Mark Rosenbaum, Chief Counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, announce a lawsuit against the state and the Dinuba Unified district in the Central Valley for denying basic instruction in reading to first and second grade English learners, during a news conference in Los Angeles Wednesday, May 30, 2012. The lawsuit says Dinuba uses a little known, grammar-intense curriculum that has first- and second-graders diagram sentences and memorize formal parts of speech instead of focusing on age-appropriate language acquisition and content. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Arick Buckles, John Knight
FILE - This Wednesday, June 22, 2011 file photo shows Chicago resident Arick Buckles, right, who is HIV positive, with ACLU attorney John Knight. Buckles filed a federal lawsuit Monday, June 18, 2012 claiming he was denied his prescribed medication for HIV for a week when he was an inmate in the Bureau County Jail in Princeton, Ill., in 2010, harming his health and violating his constitutional rights. The county was more worried about the cost of providing Buckles' HIV drugs than about his health, said American Civil Liberties Union attorney John Knight, who is helping represent Buckles. The drugs, a three-pill combination, cost more than $2,000 a month, according to Buckles' jail medical notes released to him by the county and shared by him with The Associated Press. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)
ACLU lawyer Stanley Young arrives at the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Court House, Thursday, July 19, 2012 in Phoenix for the first day of a trial targeting Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The civil trial accuses Arpaio's office of racially profiling Latinos during his immigration patrols, carried out over a three-year period. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont ACLU, speaks at a news conference on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 in Montpelier, Vt. Mental health advocates and civil libertarians are calling for a moratorium on police use of stun guns in Vermont following the death of man last week. They want it to last until the effects of the weapons can be investigated further and until police officers get more training in their use and in how to deal with people experiencing mental health crises.(AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
The sunlight glows through the cross at Mt. Soledad Memorial Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012 in San Diego. The Mt. Soledad Memorial Association is petitioning the Supreme Court to stop the demolition of the cross mandated by a ACLU lawsuit that claims the cross in unconstitutional because it violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
SRIKANTIAH ADAMS GORDON
FILE - Jayashri Srikantiah, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, holds up copies of records showing passengers checked on no fly lists from San Francisco International Airport, as plaintiffs Jan Adams, right, and Rebecca Gordon, center, look on during a news conference in San Francisco, in this April 22, 2003 file photo. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the government on behalf of Americans who believe they're on the no-fly list and have not been able to travel by air for work or to see family. The no-fly list has swelled to 20,000 people before, such as in 2004. At the time, people like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy were getting stopped before flying _ causing constant angst and aggravation for innocent travelers. But much has changed since then. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
Amelia McGowan, Rebecca Kiessling, Stephen Crampton
Amelia McGowan, an attorney for the ACLU of Mississippi, left, and Rebecca Kiessling, a family law attorney, right, listen as Stephen Crampton, general counsel for Liberty Counsel discusses the implications of Mississippi's Personhood Initiative in a symposium Tuesday night, Oct. 25, 2011 at the Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson, Miss. The practicing attorneys, law professors and others debated the implications of the state ballot initiative that would declare life begins when a human egg is fertilized. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
In this Aug. 3, 2010 file photo, Julie Schmidt, left, Gayle Schuh , middle, and Jeffrey Mittman with the American Civil Liberties Union speak at a news conference in Anchorage, Alaska. An Anchorage judge on Monday ruled same Alaska same-sex couples are entitled to the same senior citizen and disabled veteran property tax exemptions as married couples. The ACLU filed the lawsuit against the state of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage on behalf of Schmidt and Schuh and two other same sex couples, claiming the state of Alaska's tax assessment rules providing exemptions for senior citizens and disabled veterans discriminate against same sex couples. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca,at podium, takes questions about a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, outside Sheriff's headquarters Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011, in Los Angeles. The ACLU demanded earlier Wednesday that federal authorities investigate allegations of brutality by deputies at Los Angeles County jails. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
An ACLU flyer advising what to do if stopped by police is duct-taped to a tent at an "Occupy Seattle" encampment in downtown Seattle's Westlake Park, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011. People protesting the current economic situation and several other causes have been camped in the park for several days, mirroring other demonstrations in other areas of the country. Seattle police have told campers they are not allowed to continue to camp at the park, but as of mid-day Wednesday, had taken no action to enforce that policy. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
This undated photo provided by the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority shows Derrick Cotterel. Cotterel, a Jamaican farmworker detained for more then a year for overstaying his visa, had no lawyer to speak for him in court despite a severe stutter that made it impossible for a judge to understand him, the ACLU of Pennsylvania is argueing in a case before the Board of Immigration Appeals. (AP Photo/West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority)