When Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson complained to the county in the hope of retrieving their savings, they got another surprise. Lynda Russell, the district attorney, told them she had warned repeatedly that they did not have to sign the waiver, but, if they continued to contest it, they could be indicted on felony charges. I will contact you and give you an opportunity to turn yourself in without having an officer come to your door, she wrote in a letter mentioning the prospect of a grand jury. Once again, their custody of the kids was threatened. Boatright and Henderson decided to fight anyway.

When out-of-town drivers who felt victimized by a Tenaha forfeiture called local lawyers for help, their business wasn’t always welcomed. «That’d be like kicking a basket of rattlesnakes,» one defense lawyer warned a forfeiture target, Often they were referred to a defense attorney named David Guillory, in nearby Nacogdoches. Guillory is abroad-faced man with blue eyes and the gregarious, cheerful disposition of a Scoutmaster. (He is, in fact, an assistant Scoutmaster of local Troop 100, and keeps the «Handbook of Knots» by his desk, near heaps of legal briefs.) He moved to Nacogdoches seventeen years ago and set up shop as a small town civil rights lawyer. He specialized in cases around the state that made neither friends nor profits: mostly, suing policemen for misconduct.

By the time Boatright and Henderson spoke with Guillory, he was already acquainted with what he refers to as «the Tenaha operation.» Several months earlier, he’d received a call from a plumpcheeked twenty seven year old man named James Morrow, who worked at a Tyson plant in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, slicing chicken strips for prepared foods. «He told me a pretty startling story,» Guillory recalls. In August, 2007, Tenaha police pulled Morrow over for «driving too close to the white line,» and took thirty-nine hundred dollars from him. Morrow told Guillory that he was on his way to get dental work done at a Houston mall. (The arresting officers said that his «stories of travel» were inconsistent, as was his account of how much money he had; they also said they detected the «odor of burned marijuana,» although no contraband was found in the car.) Morrow, who is black, was taken to jail, where he pleaded with authorities to call his bank to see proof of his recent cash withdrawal. They declined.

«They impounded my car, and they impounded me, too,» Morrow told me, recalling the night he spent in jail. When he finally agreed to sign away his property, he was released on the side of the road with no money, no vehicle, and no phone. «I had to go to Wal-Mart and borrow someone’s phone to call my mama,» he recounted. «She had to take out a rental car to come pick me up.» For weeks, Morrow said he felt «crippled,» unsure of what to do. He says that a Tenaha officer told him, «Donʼt even bother getting a lawyer. The money always stays here.» But finally he decided «to shine a big оГ light on them.»

After Morrow was steered to Guillory, he took a day off from his job and arrived at Nacogdoches with stacks of old bank files to prove where his money came from. «He knew how hard he’d worked for that money,» Guillory told me, «and every dime was taken from him.» Guillory decided to find out if what had happened to Morrow was more than a fluke. He was taken aback by the scale of what he uncovered. It was a baroque small town scandal, but it was also a story with national reach. He wondered how many people across the country felt «crippled,» as Morrow did, by statutes so little known yet so widely used.

In West Philadelphia last August, an elderly couple named Mary and Leon Adams were finishing breakfast when several vans filled with heavily armed police pulled up to their red brick home. An officer announced, «We’ll give you ten minutes to get your things and vacate the property.» The men surrounding their home had been authorized to enter, seize, and seal the premises, without any prior notice.

T was almost numb,» Mary Adams, a sixty eight year old grandmother with warm brown eyes and wavy russet hair, recalled. When I visited her this spring, she sat beside her seventy year old husband, who was being treated for pancreatic cancer, and was slumped with exhaustion. A little earlier, he had struggled to put on his embroidered blue and yellow guayabera shirt; his wife, looking fit for church in a green jacket, tank top, and slacks, watched him attentively as he shuffled over on a carved wood cane to greet me. Leon explained his attachment to their home in numerical terms. «1966», he said. «It’s been our home since 1966».

Mary had been working as a truck stop cook in segregated South Carolina when she met and married Leon a man from «way out in the woods, just a fireplace and a lamp» and followed him north. Leon had been hired as a cook at the Valley Forge Music Fair, outside Philadelphia, where James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and the Kingston Trio would one day perform. After renting a room in the city, the Adamses found a sweet little two story house within their budget, five miles from Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell. It had a narrow covered porch that reminded Mary Adams of the country.

The home served the Adams family well over the next half century, as Leon took a job as a steel plant worker, and later as an elementary school janitor, and Mary worked as a saleswoman at Woolworth and, eventually, as a patients’ care assistant at Bryn Mawr hospital. («I treated every patient as a V.I.P., whether you were in a coma or not!») More recently, the home has helped the couple ease into their retirement. «I love digging in the dirt», she said, referring totheir modest, marigold-lined front yard, and «sitting on the porch, talking to neighbors».

Their home also proved a comfortable place to raise their only son, Leon, Jr. so comfortable, in fact, that the young man never quite flew the nest. At thirty one, slender and goateed, Leon, Jr., occupied a small bedroom on the second floor. When his father, who had already suffered a stroke, fell ill with cancer, he was around to help out. But, according to a report by the Philadelphia Police Department, the younger Leon had a sideline: on the afternoon of July

10, 2012, he allegedly sold twenty dollars’ worth of marijuana to a confidential informant, on the porch of his parentsʼ home. When the informant requested two more deals the next week, the report said, he made the same arrangements. Both were for twenty dollars, purchased with marked bills provided by police.

Around 5 P.M. on July 19th, Leon, Sr., was in his bedroom recovering from surgery when he was startled by a loud noise. «I thought the house was blowing up», he recalls. The police «had some sort of big, long club and four guys hit the door with it, and knocked the whole door right down». SWAT-team officers in riot gear were raiding his home. One of the officers placed Leon, Jr., in handcuffs and said, «Apologize to your father for what you’ve done». Leon, Jr., was taken off to jail, where he remains, awaiting trial.

The police returned about a month after the raid. Owing to the allegations against Leon Jr., the state was now seeking to take the Adamses’ home and to sell it at a biannual city auction, with the proceeds split between the district attorney’s office and the police department All of this could occur even if Leon, Jr., was acquitted in criminal court; in fact, the process could be completed even before he stood trial.

Mary Adams was at a loss. She and her husband were accused of no crime. Instead, the civil case was titled Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. The Real Property and Improvements Known as [their address]. For years, Mary had volunteered for the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee, and as a block captain she always thought that civil forfeiture was reserved for crack houses and abandoned eyesores. Now her own carefully maintained residence was the target.

The Adamses had a lucky break on the morning of their eviction notice: when an officer observed Leon s frail condition, he told them that they could stay in the house while the forfeiture proceedings advanced. This gave them some time to figure out how to fight. «We had no money», Mary told me, so they couldn’t hire a lawyer. But they learned of a free «Civil Practice» clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, run by Louis Rulli, where students help indigent homeowners challenge civil forfeiture claims.

«It was an area of the law that was under the radar and very prone to abuse», Rulli told me when we met at his clinic, in a wing of the law school with a separate entrance and an air of potted plant competence reminiscent of a doctor’s office. Beside him sat Susanna Greenberg, a colleague, and Julia Simon Mishel, who had worked on the Adamses’ case as a law student Rulli noted that the system is designed to defeat anyone who isn’t an expert in navigating its intricacies. «These are affirmative defenses you lose them if you don’t raise them,» he said. «Even lawyers don’t know about these defenses unless they’ve worked on forfeiture specifically».

The public records I reviewed support Rulli’s assertion that homes in Philadelphia are routinely seized for unproved minor drug crimes, often involving children or grandchildren who don’t own the home. «For real-estate forfeitures, it’s overwhelmingly African-Americans and Hispanics», Rulli told me. «It has a very disparate race and class impact». He went on to talk about Andy Reid, the former coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, whose two sons were convicted of drug crimes in 2007 while living at the family’s suburban mansion in Villanova. «Do you know what the headline read? It said, THE HOME WAS AN «EMPORIUM OF DRUGS.» «An emporium of drugs!» The phrase, Rulli explained, came directly from a local judge. »And here’s the question: Do you think they seized it?». Beth Grossman, the chief of the city’s Public Nuisance Task Force, which includes the forfeiture unit, says she’s seen the statute used to transform drug ridden communities that had few other means of recourse against dangerous local dealers. «Our mission is not to rake houses and to auction them», she told me. Although the city auctioneer reports that about a hundred properties are successfully seized and sold each year, Grossman says the city prefers to work out settlements that would allow families to stay in their homes. «Our mission comes from a place of public safety and providing a good quality of life for our law-abiding citizens in Philadelphia.» The Philadelphia D. A.’s office has declined to comment on the specifics of the Adamses’ case, but Tasha Jamerson, its spokesperson, told me, «It’s not us making decisions, willy-nilly….. It’s the law. Weʼre following the law».

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