Texas law enforcement are continuing to enrich themselves using a little-known legal doctrine known as civil forfeiture, according to a new series of investigative reports. Under civil forfeiture, property can be forfeited even if its owner has never been charged with a crime. In these proceedings, accused criminals have more rights than innocent owners and the government sues the property, not its owner. These cases can be so baffling, one Texas Supreme Court Justice recently compared civil forfeiture to Alice in Wonderland and the works of Franz Kafka. But civil forfeiture isn’t just a quirky curiosity—it’s a powerful incentive for law enforcement to take millions.
Last month, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the District Attorney’s Office in Tarrant County, Texas seized $3.5 million, plus almost 250 cars and 440 computers in fiscal year 2013, roughly equal to about 10 percent of its budget. Of the property seized, almost $845,000 was spent on salaries for 16 employees at the office. By comparison, only $53,000 went to “six nonprofits that benefit victims or prosecution efforts.” The county’s narcotics unit spent an even greater proportion of forfeiture funds on salaries. Last year, the unit seized $666,427 in cash and used $426,058 to pay salaries.
Even more property was forfeited by participating in a federal program known as “equitable sharing.” By partnering with a federal agency, local and state law enforcement can keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds from a forfeited property. Incredibly, police can collaborate even if doing so would circumvent their own states’ protections for property owners. …
In Texas, law enforcement can keep up to 90 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property. That clearly affects police priorities and provides an incentive to pursue cases rich in assets. In another article, the Star-Telegram delved into the forfeiture battle that ensued after law enforcement busted a low-level drug ring at Texas Christian University (TCU). Police arrested twenty-three people for selling marijuana, pills and other controlled substances. Most of those arrested were TCU students, including four members of the football team. No one went to prison; they got probation, deferred adjudication or the charges were dismissed. Others received punishments as low as $300 in court costs.
Yet by using civil forfeiture, police seized over $300,000 worth of property from the students, including 15 cars, trucks and SUVs valued at more than $250,000; over $46,000 in cash; and over $17,000 from laptops, iPads, iPhones and the like. As the paper noted, “The items were seized before formal charges were filed and months before any convictions.” But according to an after-action report issued by the Fort Worth Police Department, the drugs seized in the investigation only had an estimated street value of $29,000. So the property seized was worth far more than the drugs that were actually taken off the streets.
Civil forfeiture creates a “perverse incentive” and “skews law enforcement priorities,” noted Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “It’s one of the worst stepchildren of the war on some drugs.”
Among the TCU cases, cash and electronic devices were typically forfeited to the state. As for the cars, some students were able to retrieve them, but only after months of waiting and negotiations. One student paid $7,500 in an “economic agreement” with Tarrant County to retrieve his Cadillac Escalade. Another person sent $17,500 to the county’s narcotics unit to get back his Ford F-150.
Across the state, pursuing forfeiture cases related to cannabis has generated millions for Texas police. Between 2002 and 2012, the federal government processed $64.3 million in cash and other valuables in civil and criminal marijuana forfeitures in Texas. According to the Wall Street Journal, that amount is the fourth highest in the nation.