In 1993 I was helping a friend and colleague with his play-by-mail (PBM) gaming business (this was before the boom of online gaming of course). One of the highlights was a road trip to Ohio for a PBM convention. My buddy had warned me of speed traps in his home state of Missouri and made it clear that if and when I did any of the driving through it to keep our rental car’s cruise control set at 5 miles per hour under the limit.
On the way up we encountered no difficulties, other than nervousness over the immense flooding at the time. However, on the return trip my friend was stopped by Missouri highway patrol for allegedly speeding. That would have been laughable given that he was following his own advice regarding speed, but the trooper wasn’t kidding. He went so far as to accuse us of being drug runners— despite the fact that our car was completely packed with computers and convention booth materials!
My unfortunate colleague was threatened with jail if he did not pay a fine of around $200 on the spot. None of his protests made any difference other than to agitate the officer to the point that we were both almost arrested. Angry and exasperated, my friend paid what we both believed to be extortion and we continued home.
The incident alerted me to the disheartening fact that no matter how modernized our society had become, highway robbery continued… even in the guise of law enforcement.
Flash forward to 2008, where my old story has current relevance with a travesty illustrating that some things never change. Several people are alleging in a lawsuit that police in the tiny east Texas town of Tenaha are abusing drug property seizure laws to extort money and property from travelers, particularly minorities. I’m sad to admit that I’ve enough experience with small town Texas police to believe the allegations on their own merit, but it gets even worse: local officials admit to some of this despicable behavior and make no apologies for what they claim is a legal venture, backed by state legislation designed specifically to thwart drug runners. However, none of the victims involved in the lawsuit were found to be carrying illegal drugs of any kind.
It’s frightening to think that highway robbery occurs at all, but even moreso when it’s law enforcement engaged in the crime. That the perpetrators hide behind the shortsighted words of a well-intended but misapplied law is shameful. This sort of despicable behavior taints the efforts of honest officers and undermines the public confidence… something we really don’t need given the state of our economy at present.
Hopefully the results of the lawsuit will send a strong signal that predatory actions against law-abiding citizens are unacceptable. The fact that Texas legislators are working to tighten the language of the law in question proves that they realize they left the door wide open to abuse… but that doesn’t mean corrupt cops had to take advantage of it. Shame on them.