MARSHALL, Texas (CN) – A federal judge certified a class who say they were subjected to racial profiling and had their property taken by Texas law enforcement officers.
One deputy marshal for Tenaha, Texas, has “testified that God ‘ordained’ him to patrol Highway 59, and that God gave him the gift of being able to put crooks in jail,” according to the 58-page ruling.
In a third amended complaint, 10 travelers say they were victimized in Tenaha, which lies on Highway 59 in Shelby County, near the Louisiana border.
They claim officials “have developed an illegal ‘stop and seize’ practice of targeting, stopping, detaining, searching, and often seizing property from, apparently non-white citizens and those traveling with non-white citizens, including the plaintiffs and members of the proposed class who travel in, through, or near Tenaha.”
“The Defendants undertake this practice without legal justification, in violation of the citizens’ rights, not for any legitimate law enforcement purpose but to enrich their offices and perhaps themselves, by seizing and converting cash and other valuable personal property they can find during the course of the illegal stop and seizure practice,” the complaints says.
Last week, U.S. District Judge T. John Ward certified a class seeking declaratory and injunctive relief for alleged violations of their Fourth and 14th Amendment rights.
Named as defendants in their individual and official capacities are Tenaha Mayor George Bowers; Deputy City Marshal Barry Washington; Shelby County District Attorney Linda Russell; and Shelby County Precinct 4 Constable Randy Whatley. Shelby County District Attorney Investigator Danny Green is named as a defendant in his individual capacity only.
The complaint goes into each plaintiff’s story, claiming that police officials seized thousands of dollars while falsely accusing them of money laundering.
Arkansas resident James Morrow, who is black, says Deputy Marshal Washington pulled him over as he drove through Tenaha, demanded that he exit the car and proceeded to question him without cause. Morrow says that Constable Whatley showed up with a dog, that the two men searched the car, and that they took two cellphones and $3,969 from him before arresting him.
“Defendants Washington and Russell told plaintiff Morrow they would hold him prisoner and prosecute him for money laundering unless he would agree to forfeit the $3969,” according to the complaint. “Under this duress and these threats, defendants Washington and Russell released plaintiff Morrow and warned him to not hire a lawyer or try to get his money back.”
Texas residents Jennifer Boatright, who is white, and Ronald Henderson, who is black, tell a similar story with Washington and Whatley pulling them over and confiscating $6,000. According to the complaint, “defendants threatened to bring money laundering charges against plaintiffs Boatright and Henderson, and to take their children and put them in foster care if plaintiffs Boatright and Henderson would not sign papers prepared by defendants to authorize the seizure.”
In a 58-page order, Judge Ward recited Tenaha’s description of its traffic-stop process.
“The city of Tenaha hired Washington in the fall of 2006 to be a deputy city marshal,” Ward wrote. “The evidence demonstrates that shortly after Washington started on November 1, 2006, the City of Tenaha began its ‘interdiction’ program.”
“Defendant Whatley, the Shelby County Precinct 4 Constable, testified that he understood that the goal of the interdiction program was to stop as many people as possible for traffic violations to look for other criminal activity, primarily narcotics trafficking,” he added.
He also noted that Deputy Marshal Washington had “testified that God ‘ordained’ him to patrol Highway 59, and that God gave him the gift of being able to put crooks in jail.”
During deposition, Washington made a probative comment about indicators of criminal activity during a traffic stop. “Well there could be several things,” Washington said, as quoted by Ward. “There could even be indicators on the vehicle. The number one thing is you have two guys stopped, and these two guys are from New York. They’re two Puerto Ricans. They’re driving a car that has a Baptist Church symbol on the back, says First Baptist Church of New York. They’re traveling during the week, when most people are working and children are in school. They’ve borrowed this car from their aunt, and their aunt is back in New York. You interview the two men, and they don’t have a job, and they’re on vacation. They have any substantial amount of luggage for the two people to travel from New York to Houston. They’re nervous. They have conflicting stories. Sometimes they don’t even know each other. They may have emblems on the car that have Gregg County Sheriff’s Office on it. Just indicators.”
Ward also considered the implications of an absence of racial profiling information in Tenaha.
“It is undisputed that both the Tenaha police department and constable’s office failed to collect racial profiling information that they were required by law to collect and report and that would have clearly shown the impact of the interdiction program on racial and ethnic minorities,” he wrote.
Amid this lack of data, District Attorney Russell and Investigator Green have been silent about the case so far, the judge noted.
“The court finds that the failure of Tenaha and the constable’s office to collect, report, and maintain racial profiling information, as required by Texas law, gives rise to an inference that this failure was the result of an attempt to conceal the illegal targeting of racial and ethnic minorities for enforcement of the interdiction program,” Ward wrote. “This, coupled with the adverse inference drawn from the refusal of defendants Russell and Green to answer relevant questions based on the Fifth Amendment suggests that Defendants created an illegal practice of targeting racial and ethnic minorities for pretextual traffic stops as part of the interdiction program – i.e. that Tenaha’s interdiction program operates as a general policy of discrimination,” the order states.
Ward said he relied on the Supreme Court’s recent decision on class certification in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes.
While the judge certified the class for injunctive and declaratory relief, he said the damages claims are not suitable for class certification.
The class will include “(1) people who are, or appear to be, members of racial or ethnic minority groups and those in their company, and (2) were, or will be, traveling in, through, or near Tenaha at any time after November 1, 2006, and (3) were stopped, or will be subject to being stopped, by one or more Defendant for an alleged traffic violation.”