The Orphan of Tenaha

When last we passed through Tenaha, Texas, they had a pretty good gig going.  Stop black drivers and make them an offer they couldn’t refuse: Forfeit whatever property of value they had on them or get arrested.  No, there wasn’t anything to arrest them for, but they would spend a night or more in jail and have to defend themselves.  Finally, somebody sued :


According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, officers would stop non-white motorists for no legal reason, order them out of their cars, search their cars, call out dogs to search the cars, find nothing, interrogate the motorists, ask them if they had any money, seize the money, arrest them for “money laundering”, and then threaten to hold them prisoner and prosecute them for money laundering unless they would agree to forfeit the money.

This put Shelby County District Attorney Lynda K. Russell in the crosshairs, and in a delicious twist of irony, Russell sought to use the proceeds of these “forfeitures” to pay for her defense.  As Radley Balko explains,


Here’s the crazy part: Russell is attempting to use proceeds from the county’s forfeiture fund to pay for her legal defense. That is, she wants to raid the fund she’s accused of stealing from motorists to fund in order to defend herself from accusations that she stole from motorists to fund it. The ultimate irony here is that when law enforcement officials freeze a suspect’s assets in anticipation of a drug prosecution, the suspect isn’t allowed to use any of those assets to pay for his own legal defense.

Russell’s quandary arises from her being disowned.  It seems that the folks who signed her paycheck, the ones who gave her the authority to come up with this wonderful revenue raiser, no longer love her.  According to  the ACLU, which is opposing Russell’s application, the Shelby County Commissioners and the State of Texas have refused to provide Russell with a defense. 

How convenient.  When the cash is flowing, everybody loves Russell.  But when the bright lines shine on Russell, nobody knows her.  No doubt that argument is that she was performing her duty only when she did so legally and properly.  When she stepped over the line to abuse her authority and become party to the wrongdoing, she did so on her own.  No respondeat superior here, sister.

But the ACLU is arguing “no dice.”  Not only does the state and county clothe Russell with the authority to do wrong, but they are responsible for overseeing her performance of her duty while she enjoys the authority they’ve conferred.  They can’t love the cash but disclaim responsibility for its source.

According to Lisa Graybill, Legal Director at the ACLU of Texas:


Texas has a long history of having its law enforcement officials unconstitutionally target racial minorities in the flawed and failed war on drugs and it is of paramount importance that those officials be held accountable.”
Russell is at the front of the line.  But the line drags on behind her, and includes all those fine officials who have happily allowed conduct like this to go on in Tenaha, and elsewhere. 

Personally, I don’t care whether Shelby County or the state pays for Russell’s defense.  It would be sweeter if Russell had to give up a few trinkets of her own to cover the cost.  But by no means does that mean that everyone, from the cop pretending to be Diane Ross, on up, isn’t responsible for what happened in Tenaha.  And each should be held accountable, whether for being actively engaged in quietly complicit.  Without touching the very funds that were stolen from passing black motorists.

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