toward Corpus Christi and took the U.S. 281 exit near Three Rivers. The road toward the border winds through the Nueces River bottom for a few miles with the Choke Canyon Reservoir nearby. “You know,” Javier said later, “some days you’re driving down that highway, and you think, ‘It’s nice down here. It’s pretty. I might come back.”‘ But the passage into deeper South Texas put him on edge, as it often did. “It’s different down there, that’s all there is to it. It’s still Texas, but it’s different:’ Two long rural highways provide the most direct connection between the state’s major population centers and the Valley. U.S. Highway 77 skirts the coastline from Houston, Corpus Christi, and Kingsville drops south through Kleberg and Kennedy countiesKing Ranch countrytoward Harlingen. Twentyodd miles to the west, on an almost parallel track, U.S. Highway 281 routes traffic from San Antonio and populous points north through and around Alice, down through the chaparral of Jim Wells and Brooks counties toward McAllen. These two highways are undisputed circuits for the transport of illegal drugs, the money that pays for the drug traffic, other items of contraband such as cars stolen in Texas and bound for sale in Mexico, and undocumented Latin American immigrants. The roads are also a goldmine for the local law enforcement officials who patrol them. Under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure’s Chapter 59, “Forfeiture of Contraband:’ personal assets seized by officers during the investigation of possible felonies and a wide range of misdemeanors become the property of the municipalities and counties in which the apprehensions occur. As these are civil seizures, the law provides for hearings in state civil court, where confiscations can be challenged and property recovered, but the Legislature did not make it easy. For example, an acquittal or dismissal of charges does not necessarily mean the confiscation will be overturned. Partly because of its proximity to the border, nowhere in Texas has what is commonly known as asset forfeiture been put to greater use than on U.S. 281. Since the passage of the provision in 1989, Chapter 59 seizures have become essential to the operating budgets of cash-strapped rural counties. In 2006, a Jim Wells County deputy named Ray Escamilla was lauded as the nation’s leader in captures of “drug seizure money:’ Over four years, the deputy sergeant racked up more than $3 million by working the traffic on U.S. 281 and finding reasons to search cars and trucks. His seizures of suspect cash and several vehicles enabled the sheriff’s department in the tax-poor county to pay the salaries of additional officers and buy patrol cars, guns, SWAT gear, and four dogs trained to find bombs and drugs. Into this dynamic rolled Javier Gonzalez on that fall day three years ago. After Javier left the interstate, the enjoyment he felt driving on U.S. 281 through the bottomland of the Nueces River lasted until they came to the first town, George West. “Young Hispanic officer,” Javier recalled. “Whatever I did, he stayed right behind me, then the lights came on, so I pulled over in the lot of this store. He asked for my license, insurance, and registration, then said, ‘I stopped you because you don’t have a front license plate on your vehicle.”‘ \(Auto dealers and thousands of Texas motorists harbor the erroneous belief that a license plate on the front bumper is optional, and the fiction endures because many officers don’t to the man I worked for,” Javier said, “and showed him that I had the plate inside, on the dashboard. Those Mazdas don’t have any place on the bumper where you can screw the plate on. Officer asked me, ‘What do you do in Austin?’ I told him, and he said, ‘You know, it’s nice to see a young Hispanic male doing well in the world. You don’t have any knives, guns, ammunition, or large amounts of money, do you?’ “So, there it is. I’ve got to say, `You know, I do. I’ve got several thousand dollars to pay for a funeral in a bag back [in the trunk]: “You do? Well, let me see it. Javier wasn’t required to submit to that search, but he wasn’t aware of that. “The officer wrote me a warning ticket for not having the license plate on the front, then he said, ‘Have a nice day. You’re free to go: He let me go!” About an hour of driving passed, interrupted briefly when Javier got hungry and ran into a store to buy some road food. Between Alice and the little town of Premont he picked up another tail this one a sedan occupied by two officers with the Jim Wells County Task Force. Only a few weeks earlier, on October 7, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa had been stopped on that same stretch of U.S. 281 in Jim Wells County and was cited by an officer with the South Texas Specialized Crimes and Narcotics Task Force for swerving on the roadway and driving an SUV with windows that were tinted too dark. The ensuing argument with the officer, in which the senator believes he was a victim of ethnic profiling, led to a crusade by Hinojosa in the 2005 Legislature to force multicounty task forces to accept supervision by the Department of Public Safety. As part of the War on Drugs these multi-county task forces operated independently and were funded by a governor’s office pass-through of federal Byrne Justice Assistance Grants. Cosponsored by Democratic state Rep. Terri Hodge of Dallas, Hinojosa’s billwhich did not affect Chapter 59 of the criminal codeprohibited the governor’s Criminal Justice Division from awarding federal grants to multi-county task forces that were functioning as stand-alone law enforcement and “We’re seeing a tendency in some prosecutors’ offices to employ asset forfeiture money as slush fundsusing them to pay for booze and parties and favors to political cronies.” 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MAY 16, 2008
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