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Hold Up There, Pardner!

I thought I’d mentioned the town of Tenaha, Texas before, so this story looked familiar to me. A link sent by Bunny Chafowitz, however, makes the story look fresh so maybe it’s just my imagination.

Police in Tenaha are accused of committing — quite literally — highway robbery.

One estimate is that in a mere two years, the shakedown of drivers passing through Tenaha has netted the Department $3 million dollars. If I were bringing in that kind of money, I’d be well on my way to retirement!

Truth is, the only thing that surprises me is the number of people who pass through Tenaha with so much cash in their vehicles. One couple apparently had $50,000 in cash they were going to use to buy a restaurant. Frankly, I’d think it wise to use at least a cashier’s check for such a business transaction!

What doesn’t really surprise me is the readiness and regularity with which the Tenaha officers apparently committed their streetside shakedowns. It doesn’t take much time in the legal field before you realize that the most common “law enforcement” tool is The Shakedown.

And it’s not just police officers who are using it. Even well-meaning — and I’m one-hundred percent sincere when I call them “well-meaning” — prosecutors and judges engage in the practice on a routine basis. I’ve had more than one conversation which involved something along the lines of “your client can plead to this, or else this other more serious thing is going to happen.”

For example, a client may have been charged with two “strikes,” but the offer is to allow him to plead to a single non-strike felony. Evidence for the strikes may be strong enough to believe the prosecution has at least a 50% chance of winning at trial. Juries being what they are, it doesn’t make sense to go to trial and risk my client being zapped with two strikes, when he could enter a no-contest plea to a non-strike felony.

The prosecutor, as I said, means well. The prosecutor may believe my client is absolutely guilty, but is willing to “give him a break” by making this “generous” offer.

The thing is, faced with Morton’s Fork, even an innocent person would probably take the offer; the tines aren’t exactly the same.

I can’t provide a link for this — one reason I haven’t blogged in awhile is I hate making statements like this where I provide a citation — but I once read that actuaries estimate there are 100,000 innocent people behind bars. (Actuaries are the people who use statistical analysis to make predictions relied on by others, such as insurance companies, etc.) I can’t remember if that number was for “innocent people behind bars in California” or “in America.” I also don’t know how recent that information is, so that number may be low. As rights aimed at ensuring fair trials decrease and Morton’s Fork situations proliferate, the number surely rises.

Another situation — much less acceptable, but possibly more frequently used — involves police investigations and district attorney’s office investigations where witnesses who are deemed less-than-cooperative are informed that they will become more cooperative (read: will show up and testify to what the police or DA want) or risk losing their children. Theoretically, Child Protective Services does not work for either the DA or police, but the number of witnesses who have been threatened with losing their children if they don’t do what these folks want are legion.

The Tenaha Police Department, seen in that light, is just more blatant about shakedowns in that they’re obviously abusing their position of authority to do something unacceptable, but they’re just at a more extreme end of the same spectrum.

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