'Looking' Like a Criminal

Ethel Hylton of New York City has yet to regain her financial
independence after losing $39,110 in a search nearly three years ago in
Hobby Airport in Houston. // Shortly after she arrived from New York, a
Houston officer and Drug Enforcement Administration agent stopped the
46-year-old woman in the baggage area and told her she was under arrest
because a drug dog had scratched at her luggage. The dog wasn't with
them, and when Miss Hylton asked to see it, the officers refused to
bring it out. // The agents searched her bags, and ordered a strip
search of Miss Hylton, but found no contraband. // In her purse they
found the cash Miss Hylton carried because she planned to buy a house to
escape the New York winters which exasperated her diabetes. It was the
settlement from an insurance claim, and her life's savings, gathered
through more than 20 years of work as a hotel housekeeper and hospital
night janitor. // The police seized all but $10 of the cash and sent
Miss Hylton on her way, keeping the money because of its alleged drug
connection. But they never charged her with a crime. // The Pittsburgh
Press verified her jobs, reviewed her bank statements and substantiated
her claim she had $18,000 from an insurance settlement. It also found no
criminal record for her in New York City. // With the mix of outrage and
resignation voiced by other victims of searches, she says: ``The money
they took was mine. I'm allowed to have it. I earned it.'' // Miss
Hylton became a U.S. citizen six years ago. She asks, ``Why did they
stop me? Is it because I'm black or because I'm Jamaican?'' // Probably,
both -- although Houston police haven't said. //

Drug teams interviewed in dozens of airports, train stations and bus
terminals and along other major highways repeatedly said they didn't
stop travellers based on race. But a Pittsburgh Press examination of 121
travellers' cases in which police found no dope, made no arrest, but
seized money anyway showed that 77 percent of the people stopped were
black, Hispanic, or Asian.

In April, 1989, deputies from Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana, seized
$23,000 from Johnny Sotello, a Mexican-American whose truck overheated
on a highway. // They offered help, he accepted. They asked to search
his truck. He agreed. They asked if he was carrying cash. He said he was
because he was scouting heavy equipment auctions. // They then pulled a
door panel from the truck, said the space behind it could have hidden
drugs, and seized the money and the truck, court records show. Police
did not arrest Sotello but told him he would have to go to court to
recover his property. // Sotello sent auctioneer's receipts to police
which showed he was a licensed buyer. the sheriff offered to settle the
case, and with his legal bills mounting after two years, Sotello
accepted. In a deal cut last March, he got his truck, but only half his
money. The cops kept $11,500. // ``I was more afraid of the banks than
anything -- that's one reason I carry cash,'' says Sotello. ``But a lot
of places won't take checks, only cash, or cashier's checks for the
exact amount. I never heard of anybody saying you couldn't carry cash.''

Affidavits show the same deputy who stopped Sotello routinely stopped
the cars or black and Hispanic drivers, exacting ``donations'' from
some. // After another of the deputy's stops, two black men from Atlanta
handed over $1,000 for a ``drug fund'' after being detained for hours,
according to a hand-written receipt reviewed by the Pittsburgh Press. //
The driver got a ticket for ``following to (sic) close.'' Back home,
they got a lawyer. // Their attorney, in a letter to the Sheriff's
department, said deputies had made the men ``fear for their safety, and
in direct exploitation of that fear a purported donation of $1000 was
extracted...'' // If they ``were kind enough to give the money to the
sheriff's office,'' the letter said, ``then you can be kind enough to
give it back.'' If they gave the money ``under other circumstances, then
give the money back so we can avoid litigation.'' // Six days later, the
sheriff's department mailed the men a $1,000 check.

Last year, the 72 deputies of Jefferson Davis Parish led the state in
forfeitures, gathering $1 million -- more than their colleagues in New
Orleans, a city 17 times larger than the parish. // Like most states,
Louisiana returns the money to law enforcement agencies, but it has one
of the more unusual distributions: 60 percent goes to the police
bringing a case, 20 percent to the district attorney's office
prosecuting it and 20 percent to the court fund of the judge signing the
forfeiture order. // ``The highway stops aren't much different from a
smash-and-grab ring,'' says Lorenzi, of the Louisiana Defense Lawyers

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