The basic truth is, in a lot of states, police can pull over any driver (usually out-of-state), claim to have 'smelled marijuana', and tell the driver and other occupants that they have a choice: hand over all their valuables to the police, or go to jail and have their kids put into local foster care. When the driver almost invariably accepts the deal, usually offered actually by the DA, the driver is released with no charges and the goods are sold and the money goes to the police dept and/or prosecutor's office. They're able to spend the money however they like, including tiny towns buying SWAT assault vehicles and giving excessive bonuses to the small-town cops who took the valuables in the first place. You have to read the whole article to believe it, and that probably means you have to find a printed copy of the magazine. But it's well worth reading.

From an incident described in the article, which took place in Tenaha, TX, a town infamous for pulling over (disproportionately black and hispanic) drivers and taking their belongings, claiming they fit the profiles of drug couriers, but then letting them go without any charges once the valuables were signed over. One officer in this small town was paid $30k/year, but got a $40k bonus for all the merchandise he had commandeered for the city to cash in:

The county’s district attorney, a fifty-seven-year-old woman with feathered Charlie’s Angels hair named Lynda K. Russell, arrived an hour later. Russell, who moonlighted locally as a country singer, told Henderson and Boatright that they had two options. They could face felony charges for “money laundering” and “child endangerment,” in which case they would go to jail and their children would be handed over to foster care. Or they could sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha, and get back on the road. “No criminal charges shall be filed,” a waiver she drafted read, “and our children shall not be turned over to CPS,” or Child Protective Services.

“Where are we?” Boatright remembers thinking. “Is this some kind of foreign country, where they’re selling people’s kids off?” Holding her sixteen-month-old on her hip, she broke down in tears.

Later, she learned that cash-for-freedom deals had become a point of pride for Tenaha, and that versions of the tactic were used across the country. “Be safe and keep up the good work,” the city marshal wrote to Washington, following a raft of complaints from out-of-town drivers who claimed that they had been stopped in Tenaha and stripped of cash, valuables, and, in at least one case, an infant child, without clear evidence of contraband.

Outraged by their experience in Tenaha, Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson helped to launch a class-action lawsuit challenging the abuse of a legal doctrine known as civil-asset forfeiture. “Have you looked it up?” Boatright asked me when I met her this spring at Houston’s H&H Saloon, where she runs Steak Night every Monday. She was standing at a mattress-size grill outside. “It’ll blow your mind.”


The best tale in the article takes place in Philadelphia, where the DA said a guy selling 2 $20 bags of pot to a narc meant that his elderly parents's house, which they had worked for their whole lives and owned proudly for 51 years, was to be confiscated out from under them and auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the city's coffers. On the other hand, when Andy Reid's sons were caught selling massive amounts of drugs out of his house, you know who said the house should be confiscated? Nobody.