Specific Cases from the Dateline Episode on Louisiana Seizures

(Note: This is an appendix to the essay,
"Tourist Alert: Louisiana Revenuers"
by Leon Felkins)

The following segments are quoted from the Dateline Episode of August 22, 1997:

  1. Ms Bryant stopped by unmarked car

    LARSON: (Voiceover) Karen Bryant had never been in trouble with the law. She was headed home to her two children after a weeklong church convention, when an unmarked car began following her.

    LARSON: What did you think it was?

    Ms. KAREN BRYANT: I had no idea.

    LARSON: Didn't look like a police car?

    Ms. BRYANT: No. It looked like a white sports car.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) The man driving turned on a blue flashing light, similar to this one and pulled her over. He was wearing a plain brown jacket and showed no identification.

    Ms. BRYANT: And he walked up to the car and he said, 'I'm police Roll your window down.'

    LARSON: (Voiceover) Karen had heard about the so-called "Blue light" rapist, who impersonated being a police officer. And now, a man who had gotten out of an unmarked car was asking her to get out of her car.

    Ms. BRYANT: I said, 'Well I'm not getting out of my car or rolling my window down until you show me some credentials.' And at that point, he started screaming. I thought. 'He's not legit...'

    LARSON: Yeah.

    Ms. BRYANT: ... so I put the car in drive and took off.

    LARSON: Why were you running?

    Ms. BRYANT: Because I thought he was going to kill me.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) Karen Bryant did what women have been told to do in that situation: head to the nearest well-lit area. She sped to a gas station, where she hoped to call police. But the man in the sports car caught her and tore her from her car.

    Ms. BRYANT: And he threw me on the car and handcuffed me.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) The man in the unmarked car turned out to be sheriffs deputy Dennis Fontenot - a six-foot, 230-pound weightlifter, who claimed Bryant had improperly changed lanes. And when Bryant threatened to call a lawyer:

    Ms. BRYANT: He said, 'If you're going to act like an ass, we're going to treat you like an ass.'

    LARSON: (Voiceover) They took Bryant to jail, where Deputy Fontenot ordered her strip-searched. She says it was the most humiliating moment in her life.

    Ms. BRYANT: The type of strip search they issued or ordered was a cavity search. I mean, I felt sub-in-subhuman. I was being treated subhumanly.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) Karen Bryant sued and the sheriff settled the case out of court. Deputy Fontenot was fired.

    [Larson attempts to interview Fontenot.]

    LARSON: Deputy Fontenot? John Larson from DATELINE NBC, NBC News.

    Deputy DENNIS FONTENOT: How're you doing?

    LARSON: Good.

    (Voiceover) So why, when we caught up with him, was he still in uniform? Because he went to work for the neighboring sheriff, and now he's back on patrol.

    (Fontenot talking to Larson)

    LARSON: Why was it necessary to handcuff her and strip search her?

    Deputy FONTENOT: I didn't strip search her.

    LARSON: Or ask for the strip search, I guess.

    Deputy FONTENOT: Oh, talk to my lawyer, OK?

    LARSON: Voiceover) So how does a woman, who just an hour earlier was on her way home from a church convention, wind up fingerprinted, photographed, and jailed - all for something that supposedly began as a minor traffic violation: improper lane usage.

  2. "DWH" arrests

    LARSON: (Voiceover) And, says this officer, some Louisiana police illegally target drivers for the color of their skin.

    (Policeman speaking to black woman on side of road)

    Policeman #3: There's a lot of minorities out there getting robbed.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) Like these two hispanic men: Evaristo, his son Jesse and their friend, Nohu, were taking almost $12,000 in cash from their jobs in North Carolina to their families in Mexico. It was all perfectly legal. Afraid of Mexican bandits, they hid their money, their life savings, in their tennis shoes. Lavonne Meads is their employer.

    (Hispanic men talking to Dateline reporter; close-up of shoe; Meads)

    Ms. LAVONNE MEADS: I wouldn't have been surprised if it had happened to them in Mexico, but I was very surprised - shocked, disappointed, all those things, that it happened in this country.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) Police from the town of Sulfur stopped the men here, along Interstate 10, for speeding. They accused them of being drug traffickers--even though there was not a trace of drugs and even though the men had no criminal record. Police threw both men in jail, charging them with illegal use of US currency, and they put Evaristo's 10-year-old son, Jesse, into foster care.

    (Highway, road sign along Interstate 10; Evaristo, Nohu and Jesse walking through field; Sulfur Police Department paperwork, showing charges against hispanic men; Jesse)

    Ms. MEADS: He's just a little boy and he was - I knew he was bound to be terrified at being ta - you know, being stopped, having his father carted off to jail.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) During our four trips to Louisiana, we saw dozens of cars stopped. Most of the drivers were minorities. Civil rights lawyers in Louisiana have a name for this type of traffic violation. They call it DWH --- driving while Hispanic. Evaristo and Nohu hired Tom Lorenzi's firm to help try to get their truck and their life savings back. And that's when they discovered another astonishing aspect of Louisiana's forfeiture law.

    (Police cars and stopped cars along roadways; Hispanic man standing with his hands behind his head while his car is searched; Lorenzi sitting at desk, talking on telephone)

    Mr. LORENZI: You have to put up a $2500 bond in order to get to go to court, to have the opportunity to prove that you're not guilty of anything.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) It took nearly three days for their employer, Lavonne Meads, to drive over 1,000 miles to Louisiana to help get the men out of jail and get Jesse out of foster care.

    Ms. MEADS: It's been very difficult on all of us. It really has. Everybody has been affected tremendously by this experience.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) It took three months, but they got their truck and most of their money back. But they say their legal battle cost them more than $4,000-a third of their life savings.

    Ms. MEADS: The system is preying on people who are not truly capable of defending themselves.

  3. Cheryl Sanders and her Lincoln -- that the cops wanted

    Ms. SANDERS: I wasn't going to let them get away with it. It was wrong and I had to do something about it.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) Cheryl Sanders, the woman from California, whose car was taken, also decided to fight back. She had to post a bond equal to the value of her car-$7,500, just to begin the process of trying to get her own car back. She took a bus back to Louisiana and hired an attorney. Her legal battle took seven months.

    Ms. SANDERS: I'm scared to death of this town.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) But Cheryl won, sort of.

    [Right after having her car returned]

    Unidentified Attorney #2: Well, here it is.

    Ms. SANDERS: Oh, I'm just - I'm so happy to see my vehicle that you wouldn't believe it.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) She got her car back and went home to California.

    (Cheryl driving car)

    Ms. SANDERS: See you, Tim. Thank you!

    LARSON: (Voiceover) But her fight had been so expensive, she had to sell the car to pay off her legal bills. The only transportation she has left is a bicycle.

    Ms. SANDERS: I can't imagine that this still happens in America. I just can't imagine it.

    Ms. BRYANT: This is America, and I do realize they have to do their job. But when they are acting worse than the people they are trying to arrest, there's something wrong.

  4. Planting Evidence

    LARSON: But a new story discovered by DATELINE - one that came to light in the wake of our report - raises fears that with big money at stake, the new reforms may not go far enough. It's a case where police are now accused of crimes and are still on the job.

    (Voiceover) It happened in Scott, Louisiana, where the police motto is, "So None Shall Live In Fear." On April 18th, 1996, Scott police stopped this out of state Lincoln Towncar. They seized more than $55,000 in cash and arrested three Vietnamese men.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) Police Chief Jerry Carpenter showed them off before the local media and charged them with being drug traffickers.

    Police Chief JERRY CARPENTER: These oriental males have been arrested. A large amount of cash and drugs have been confiscated by the Scott Police Department, and the investigation is continuing at this time.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) Attorney Frank Dockens represents the Vietnamese men.

    (Dockens sitting at desk)

    Mr. FRANK DOCKENS: My clients informed me that the police were laughing and joking about the money, tossing packets of money to each other.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) Dockens argued the men were really fishermen, on their way to Alabama to buy this new shrimp boat. The $55,000: the down payment, a lifetime of savings. The men had bank receipts and a contract to buy the boat with them in the car. Out on the highway, police searched the car for more than an hour and a half. They found the money, but no drugs. Nonetheless, police took the men to the police station, where Chief Carpenter himself, according to law enforcement sources, conducted a second search with a very different result. The chief says he found this cocaine in the trunk and this marijuana in the seat.

    LARSON: But according to the local district attorney, what the police chief didn't realize was that when he made that last search back here at the Scott Police Station, there was another police car parked directly behind the Lincoln...

    ... and that squad car's on-board video camera had been left on, and the videotape was rolling. Police officers later testified they saw Chief Carpenter, on the videotape, plant the drugs in the car. As for the alleged cocaine, it turned out to be harmless white powder, which later, somehow, disappeared from the police evidence room. As for the videotape, it was mysteriously erased.

    Mr. DOCKENS: There's no doubt in my mind they were framed.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) Police Chief Jerry Carpenter was charged in April with planting the white powder and tampering with evidence. He is pleading not guilty and is awaiting criminal trial, but he is still on the job. Officer Daryl Brussard was charged with erasing the tape and tampering with the so-called cocaine. He is pleading not guilty, but is still on the job, working in the police evidence room. And Officer Byron Romero was charged with planting the marijuana. He too is pleading not guilty but is still on the job as a Scott police officer.

  5. An actual druggy caught

    LARSON: Canipe was driving a Mercedes like this one when police pulled him over on Interstate 10. He was wearing an expensive Rolex watch at the time. When they looked inside the car, they found marijuana in his glove box. When they searched the trunk, they found prescription narcotics and $156,000 in cash. Tom Lorenzi was Canipe's lawyer.

    Mr. LORENZI: I was contacted by the district attorney's office and was made an offer. And that was that if he would agree to forfeit the Mercedes and the majority of the money, they would give the rest of the money back to him, give him the Rolex and drop all the charges.

    LARSON: And let him go?

    Mr. LORENZI: And let him go.

    LARSON: (Voiceover) That's right. After charging Canipe with possession of marijuana, possession of a narcotic, illegal use of currency and obstruction of justice, they took his money and let him go. David Kimball is the assistant district attorney who made the deal.

    LARSON: On the face of it, it looks as though you wanted the money and the car more than the guy.

    Mr. DAVID KIMBALL: Well, with what I had, I probably did. With the small amount of marijuana and some pills, which are very difficult to prove if they're illegal or not, I probably got the best I could get out of it.

    LARSON: You got a great deal.

    Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah, I did.

    LARSON: It was a profitable deal for everyone involved, in fact, very profitable. This is $150,000 in cash, the same amount that police seized from Terry Canipe. Now under Louisiana state law, police legally kept 60 percent, $90,000. Under the same law, the prosecutor's office got 20 percent - that worked out to $30,000 in cash. Now, if you think this in an unusual arrangement, don't complain about it to the judge. The final 20 percent, $30,000, went to a judicial expense fund - the judges themselves. It's an arrangement unlike any other in the country.