For Immediate Release
ACLU Opposes Texas D.A.'s Attempt To Use Seized Assets To Pay For Her Own Legal Defense
Top County Law Enforcement Official Accused Of Illegally Seizing Cash From Minority Motorists
AUSTIN, TX - The
American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Texas today filed a
brief with the Texas Attorney General's office opposing a request by
Shelby County District Attorney Lynda K. Russell to use money she
allegedly seized illegally from motorists to defend herself against a
federal lawsuit accusing her of stripping drivers – almost all of them
black – of their property without ever charging them with a crime. The
brief also argues that either the county or state, both of which have
refused to defend Russell, must be accountable for Russell's actions
and cannot decline to represent her.
Russell is accused of participating
in a scheme in which authorities pull over mostly African-American
motorists driving along a state highway in Tenaha, TX without cause,
ask if they are carrying cash and, if so, order them to sign over the
cash to the town or face felony charges of money laundering or other
"The government must account for the
misconduct of officials who operate in its name," said Vanita Gupta,
staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, who represented
African-American residents of Tulia, TX in high-profile litigation
challenging their wrongful convictions on drug charges. "The state of
Texas has seen egregious examples of racial profiling that result from
poor oversight of criminal justice officials."
Officials in Tenaha have claimed
that the seizures are a legitimate use of the state's asset forfeiture
laws as part of a battle against drug trafficking. But according to the
lawsuit, more than 140 people, almost all of whom were
African-American, turned over their assets to police without cause and
under duress between June 2006 and June 2008. If a federal judge agrees
that assets were in fact illegally seized, they should be returned to
their rightful owners, whose civil rights were violated.
"It would be completely
inappropriate for the district attorney to use assets which are the
very subject of litigation charging her with participating in allegedly
illegal activity to defend herself against these charges," said 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."
Shelby County Commissioners have
also refused to pay for Russell's defense, so Russell is now asking the
state Attorney General's office to clarify whether the forfeited funds
can be used to pay for her defense, a move the ACLU opposes because
there is already too much discretion on how forfeited funds can be used.
"The misuse of asset forfeiture laws
by local officials is exacerbated by inadequate oversight," said Matt
Simpson, Policy Strategist for the ACLU of Texas. "The legislature must
squarely address these reported civil rights violations via reform of
forfeiture laws that strengthen protection against unconstitutional
conduct and racial profiling."
Reports of racial profiling and
abuse connected to asset forfeiture are not unique to Tenaha, but are
emerging state-wide. Earlier this year, State Sen. John Whitmire of
Houston sought to change forfeiture laws by introducing legislation
that would have reformed Texas asset forfeiture law. The legislation
was stalled by procedural matters in the Texas legislature, leaving
intact a lack of accountability in the seizing and use of assets seized
under current asset forfeiture law.
ACLU lawyers involved in drafting today's brief include Gupta, Graybill and Chloe Cockburn of the ACLU Racial Justice Program.
A copy of the ACLU brief is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice/
A copy of the civil lawsuit naming Russell is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice/
Additional information about the ACLU Racial Justice Program is available online at: www.aclu.org/racialjustice
Additional information about the ACLU of Texas is available online at: www.aclutx.org
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.