Tenaha traffic stops lawsuit step closer to settlement

Lynda Russell
Lynda Russell

SHELBY COUNTY, TX (KTRE) - A lawsuit against several City of Tenaha and Shelby County officials accused of illegal forfeitures during traffic stops is a step closer to settlement, according to federal court documents.

Judge Rodney Gilstrap has approved a preliminary consent decree and a hearing will be held April 22 to determine whether the terms of the decree are fair and should be approved by the court.

Former Shelby County District Attorney Lynda K. Russell and some Tenaha city officials are accused of illegally seizing money or property during traffic stops. The lawsuit alleges Tenaha Police stopped the plaintiffs because of their race, violating their constitutional rights.

According to the order filed in federal court, both parties have reached a consent decree to settle the case.

"I think it's sort of a road map of what is going to be required for traffic stops in the future to make sure they are fair and to make sure in odd circumstances where there might be a law enforcement officer that is abusing their authority. This will make sure that they don't get away with it," attorney Tim Garrigan said.

The settlement does not award any money to the plaintiffs, but covers $520,000 in attorney fees paid by the defendants.

"The court has ruled in the law currently that in this kind of case the plaintiffs can't seek damages as a class action. But as a result of that, other cases have been filed where some of the plaintiffs are seeking damages," Garrigan said.

As part of the settlement, the city and county have to agree to 21 changes in policy, including using video and audio recordings, written documentation, keeping traffic stops punishable by no more than a ticket to 15 minutes or less, canine use, what to use forfeiture revenue, police training and more.

"They won't be able to make profile stops anymore and get away with it. They won't be able to conduct the same sort of wholesale, illegal searches and seizures," Garrigan said.

Below are the 21 changes in policy:

* Any evidence gathered in a way that does not comply with all the provisions of the Consent Decree shall be presumptively inadmissible as evidence in any court or other proceeding adverse to the person stopped. Id. at § III.B.3.

* Defendants shall adopt an impartial policing policy. Id. at § III.A.

* All traffic stops conducted by Defendants shall be mechanically recorded by both video and audio recordings, including: the use of the pre-event capabilities to capture the reason for the stop, and record the location, time, date, speed, the identity of the officer(s) and agency operating the vehicle, and any radar readings pertinent to the stop. The recordings shall also capture any canine sniffs, searches, seizures, detentions, and to the extent reasonable, arrests, resulting from a traffic stop. All oral communication and interaction with the person being stopped must be captured in the recordings. If Miranda rights are required in a specific situation by federal law, the recitation of his or her Miranda rights shall be mechanically recorded. Id. at §§ III.B.5, III.G.4.

* Defendants shall maintain written documentation with details about the traffic stop, detention, canine sniff, search, seizure, and/or forfeiture.

* Defendants shall make contemporaneous reports to dispatch for traffic stops, detentions, canine sniffs, searches, seizures, and arrests. Officers must report the basis for their actions before making contact with a motorist and request back-up before conducting any search.

* Traffic stops for violations punishable by issuance of a traffic ticket are presumed to be 15 minutes or less.

* Defendants stipulate that they do not utilize canines for any aspect of traffic stops. If a Defendant wants to use a canine, that defendant must first notify the Monitor and Plaintiffs' counsel.

* A canine sniff is allowed only when supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

* If a Defendant uses a canine, certification and training requirements apply for use of the

canine, and performance reviews are required for the canine and canine handlers.

* Written notice shall be provided to a person before a canine sniff, before a consent search, and before the seizure of any property.

* Before conducting a consent search, an officer must provide oral and written advisement of rights, and obtain written and video and audio recorded consent for the search.

* The responsible defendant shall pay a person for the full costs of property damage resulting from a search, unless the search results in the discovery of contraband. If a defendant disputes whether the damage was caused by a search, the Monitor makes a determination about liability.

* Officer must provide motorist with an inventory of all property seized. Id. at § III.F.6.

* Protections apply for an individual whose assets are seized, including prohibitions on officers requesting that an individual waive his or her interest in the property, allowing individuals a meaningful opportunity to retain counsel to contest seizure, and permitting waiver of interest in property only in the presence of judicial officer or following representation by counsel.

* Defendants agree to track all revenue and donations from asset forfeiture incident to traffic stops.

* Shelby County Auditor will confirm that each expenditure of forfeiture revenue is compliant with Texas law. If an expenditure is deemed non-compliant, the Auditor will notify the County Commissioner's Court and the Monitor.

* The Tenaha City Council, before the expenditure of any forfeiture revenue, shall confirm compliance with Texas law.

* All asset forfeiture revenue incident to traffic stops shall be donated to non-profit organizations, used for the audio and video equipment required by the Consent Decree, or used for training to meet the requirements of the Consent Decree.

* Defendants' officers shall undergo 4 hours of agreed upon/appropriate training within ninety (90) days of the entry of the Consent Decree and 4 hours of training per calendar year. The training shall cover compliance with racial profiling laws, search and seizure law, and provisions set forth in the Consent Decree.

* Defendants shall institute internal review procedures every quarter to ensure compliance with Consent Decree.

* An impartial Monitor will address Defendants' compliance with the Consent Decree and all relevant laws.

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