TENAHA, TX (KTRE) - Tenaha builds it's reputation on its accomplishments. "We have a fantastic football team" said Victoria Dorsey, waitress at the Whistle Stop Cafe, in downtown Tenaha. And a Tex Ritter song on the railroad stops of Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo and Blair.
But today not whistle stops, but rather the stops of passing motorists by local law enforcement are putting Tenaha in the news. They're dubbed 'hiway robbery and hiway piracy, all made on the highway bearing the name of city mayor George Bowers. "Anytime you get money you can use in your department to enforce police laws, anything always helps," said Bowers.
What the mayor likes is leading to statewide criticism toward a law used in community's nationwide. Houston Democrat, Texas Senator John Whitmire wants the state's civil forfeiture law overhauled. He's using Tenaha as an example for why. A class action lawsuit is alledging the seizure of property in exchange for passage through town is catching the lawmaker's and state journalist's attention. The allegations claim African American motorists driving rental cars are stopped and searched for illegal drugs. Sometimes a drug dog is there. When none are sniffed out, personal belongings, generally large amounts of cash are seized. Talk of money laundering surfaces. The person signs their money away to avoid an arrest.
Plaintiff's attorneys say one crucial step was missing. Seldom were charges filed and if they were filed the charges were dropped. If there was a corresponding criminal complaint filed with each one of these civil forfeitures claims, I could understand that," said David Guillory, the plaintiffs' attorney. "That would look like a legitimate police operation. But there's not"
Constable Randy Whatley is one of the defendants. He wouldn't talk to media, but Mayor Bowers is. He spoke candidly with local media. Then with state journalists. He talked of how seizure money helped buy a police car, property for a new police station and scholarships for students. The next day he was cutting up their follow up calls short saying, "That's really all I can say to you right now. I've been advised not to say anything else, to shut up." He agreed to talk one more time about how the publicity was affecting the small town's reputation. "I don't know anything about the lack of charges filed. That's left up to the district attorney," said Bowers. "All I know is we're trying to get drugs off the roads. It will all work out in the end to see for sure after it goes through the procedure to see who is right or who is wrong. We think we're right."
At the Whistle Stop Cafe, the sentiment is much the same. "I know both of the lawmen ,in fact I've known them for ever. They wouldn't do anything they shouldn't. It's baffling to me."