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Law Enforcement and Lobbyists Battle Over Need for Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

by Kevin Bliss

Texas used civil and criminal asset forfeiture to obtain more than $50 million in cash and property in 2017, according to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Everything from cash and cars to clothing, art, and other property were seized and sold.

Prosecutors and police claim that asset forfeiture is a crucial tool to fight against drug cartels and other crime, but many politicians call the process “un-American,” a violation of our civil liberties and a form of “policing for profit.” While the Texas Legislature is expected to take up the issue, advocates fear “lots of bills that gain no traction.”

The U.S. Department of Justice’s asset forfeiture fund reached $93.7 million in 1986. With the sudden surge of seized assets thereafter, that fund quickly surpassed $4.5 billion.

In the state of Texas, opponents of the process quoted the many abuses that the state has been complicit in over the past couple of decades. They cited trips to Hawaii purchased from asset forfeiture funds, margarita machines, and bonuses paid on top of salaries. The city of Tenaha in east Texas was sued by the ACLU for “shaking down” drivers for cash on Highway 59. They claimed that this procedure allowed Tenaha to profit $3 million from 2006-08.

Reforms in 2011 “required agencies that seize citizens’ property to disclose how they spend money they get through seizures — but they don’t have to list what they seized in each case, what offense prompted the seizure and whether they filed a criminal charge or obtained a conviction against the property’s owner,” according to The Texas Tribune.

Bills filed in Texas’ biennial Legislature, which concludes May 27, 2019, range from more disclosure on how and when asset forfeiture is used, placing more onus on the state to prove the asset was involved in a crime, to the complete abolition of civil asset forfeiture. But with resistance from police agencies, advocates fear these bills will never make it to the floor for debate.

Said Terry Canales, chairman of the House Subcommittee, “The natural enemy of any sort of civil asset forfeiture reform is going to be law enforcement itself because of the amount of money they receive. It’s almost like we’ve turned to the dark side.”

Our Founding Fathers might be aghast. One of the grievances cited in the Declaration of Independence was Britain’s abuse of its “writs of assistance,” which arbitrarily seized property and money from individuals without the need for due process. Although the procedure was adopted by the newly formed United States, historians believe it was not abused until the time of Prohibition and the seizing of vehicles running alcohol. A new era of forfeiture abuse began with Reagan’s War on Drugs. 

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Source: pulitzercenter.org, The Texas Tribune

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