Motorists say kids were used as pawns in shakedowns

DALLAS -- Authorities in a Texas town under investigation on allegations of shaking down motorists for their cash are accused of sometimes using the travelers' children as bargaining chips in their attempt to seize money, records show.

Documents reviewed by The Associated Press include accusations that 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 2007 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. 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.

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.

In the 2007 incident, 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.

"This just shows how law enforcement can place the desire for profits above the interests of children," said Scott Bullock, of the Institute of Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm in Arlington, Va.