The American Civil Liberties Union on Friday filed a brief with the Texas Attorney General’s office arguing that either the county or state must be forced to represent a county district attorney accused of illegally seizing money from mainly black motorists — in amounts ranging from $4000 to $50,000 — under the pretext of anti-drug forfeiture laws.
Shelby County District Attorney Lynda K. Russell is the subject of a federal lawsuit (pdf), along with the Deputy City Marshall, the mayor, and other local officials.
According to the ACLU, “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 serious crimes.”
Reports of similar cases are common throughout Texas, but legislation to tighten up the asset forfeiture laws has been stalled in the state legislature.
Shelby County has refused to represent Russell because she is a state employee, and the state Attorney General has also refused. Russell is therefore asking permission to use the seized money that is the subject of the lawsuit for her own defense.
“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.”
Additional information about the ACLU Racial Justice Program is available online here.