In the State of Tennessee, highway robbery in the name of “asset forfeiture” is commonplace — and Monterey PD Officer Larry Bates, who stole $22,000 from New Jersey businessman George Reby, is the embodiment of this unfathomably corrupt practice.
Reby, an insurance adjuster, was stopped for speeding by Bates on Interstate 40. Like too many honest and innocent people, Reby made the mistake of answering questions posed by the armed stranger who materialized at the driver’s side door.
Bates asked if Reby was carrying any large amounts of cash.
“I said, `Around $20,000,” Reby recalled in a television interview with the Nashville CBS affiliate. “Then, at that point, he said, `Do you mind if I search your vehicle?’ I said, `No, I don’t mind.’ I certainly didn’t feel I was doing anything wrong. It was my money.”
In fact, the ingenuous businessman actually handed the money to the officer.
What Reby didn’t understand is that through the practice of “civil asset forfeiture,” every traffic stop is a potential highway robbery — and police everywhere are encouraged to view cash and other valuables as subject to confiscation on the pretext that they are “proceeds” of narcotics trafficking. All that is necessary is for the officer to cobble together what he considers a plausible statement justifying his suspicion — however emancipated from the facts of the case — that the money or valuables is connected to actual or potential narcotics commerce.
Bates didn’t arrest Reby. He did, however, steal his money, later insisting that this was proper because the businessman “couldn’t prove it was legitimate.” In the work of fiction he filed later as an official affidavit, Bates invoked his “training” to justify the seizure, insisting that “common people do not carry this much currency.”
“On the street, a thousand-dollar bundle could approximately buy two ounces of cocaine,” Bates told a news reporter for Channel 5, as if this crashing non-sequitur ended the discussion.
Reby explained — and documented — that he had an active eBay bid on a car. Pressed by the reporter, Bates admitted that Reby had said as much during the traffic stop.
“But you did not include that in your report,” the TV reporter pointed out in his interview with Bates.
“If it’s not in there, I didn’t put it in there,” simpered the officer — offering an evasive answer of the sort that comes readily to a practiced liar and thief.
Asked why he hadn’t mentioned this germane fact in his report, Bates took refuge in sullen silence before replying: “I don’t know.”
Bates had told the judge that Reby had hidden the money inside “a tool bag underneath trash to [deter] law enforcement from finding it.”
While it is indeed a good idea to conceal your money from armed robbers in government–issued costumes, Reby had done nothing of the kind: “That’s inaccurate; I pulled out the bag and gave it to him,” he told the reporter.
Making use of access to a computerized database, Bates learned that Reby had been arrested on suspicion of cocaine use twenty years ago, but never convicted. It’s quite likely that the same is true of at least some of the people who work alongside Officer Bates.
In Tennessee, forfeiture proceedings are conducted ex parte, which means that the judge only heard the thief’s side of the story. Reby didn’t learn about the hearing until well after the fact — and if he hadn’t gone to the media, it’s likely he would have lost his money permanently. He had to travel back to Tennessee in order to get a check that was reluctantly written by a police department that refused to apologize for robbing him at gunpoint.
Spectacles of this kind are common on Interstate 40 in Tennessee, where officers from two drug task forces prowl the highway in search of cash they can seize through civil asset forfeiture.
Kim Helper, District Attorney for Tennessee’s 21st Judicial District, insists that the highway robbery scheme is “a way for us to continue to fund our operations so that we can put an end to drug trafficking and the drug trade within this district.” Of course, those two objectives — “continued funding” and “an end to drug trafficking” — are mutually incompatible.
Officers assigned to the task force often ignore actual narcotics shipments, choosing instead to focus almost exclusively on seizing money. This means concentrating on the westbound side of the highway, where the cash is believed to be found, rather than the eastbound lane, which is supposedly used to shuttle drugs in from Mexico.
As Nashville’s CBS affiliate reported last year, the salaries paid to the officers involved in this highway robbery ring are paid directly out of the cash and other assets seized by them; this means that police often find themselves competing to stop and shake down the same cars, sometimes nearly coming to blows in the process.
Larry Bates is an appropriate poster child for the Highway Robbers in uniform who haunt Interstate 40.