Pubdate: Tue, 14 Jul 2015
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2015 The Dallas Morning News, Inc.
Authors: Laura Arnold and John Arnold


Most of us would be outraged by the idea that any government authority 
could take a person's freedom or property without evidence or due 
process. That would be contrary to the most basic definitions of liberty 
that we Texans hold so dear. But this happens all the time in Texas, 
thanks to a pernicious practice called civil asset forfeiture. Law 
enforcement can legally seize private property if it merely suspects 
that the property was somehow used in a crime.

We all agree that crime should not pay. We also agree that if a 
defendant is convicted, the government should have the right to seize 
both the assets used to commit that crime and any ill-gotten gains.

But civil asset forfeiture is an entirely different issue. There is no 
need for a criminal conviction. There does not even need to be an 
arrest. A law enforcement officer need only assert a "suspicion" that 
the property in question - not the individual - was involved in a crime.

The burden of proof isn't on law enforcement to prove the property is 
derived from criminal activity. Instead, the burden is on the owner of 
the property to prove that it is not. If that property owner wishes to 
contest the seizure, he must do so at his expense.

The result of this scheme is that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Texans 
are deprived of their property every year without due process or 
evidence of wrongdoing. A routine traffic stop on a Texas highway can 
end with the police taking a citizen's cash. A police investigation in 
an underprivileged neighborhood can end with the seizure of somebody's 
car, or even her home. Many, perhaps most, of these individuals can't 
afford the time and legal fees necessary to contest the seizure. So they 
never see their property again.

Why would Texas preserve such a system? An answer may lie in the fact 
that Texas law enforcement agencies frequently keep the proceeds of 
their seizures. Civil asset forfeitures have become a critical source of 
funds for many budget-strapped police departments and district 
attorneys' offices throughout the state. Some agencies derive a 
significant percentage of revenue from civil forfeiture, with funds 
being used to pay salaries and bonuses, to buy equipment and vehicles 
and, in one notorious case, to buy a margarita machine. This presents an 
obvious conflict of interest, as law enforcement agencies have every 
incentive to seize as much property as they possibly can.

The state's own Office of Court Administration reported that $486 
million worth of property was seized through civil asset forfeiture in 
Texas from 2003 to 2012. That same report warned of the "considerable 
potential for abuse" presented by the status quo.

This past session, our Legislature had a chance to do something about 
this. Proposed solutions included transparency requirements (so that the 
public could understand what was seized and where), a heavier burden of 
proof for law enforcement, barring forfeitures from becoming final until 
the property owner is convicted of a crime, enhanced protections for 
those who are found not to be involved in criminal activity, and 
reimbursement of fees from those who wished to contest forfeitures.

Only a weak variant of the disclosure proposal passed, which simply 
required the attorney general to put already public information about 
asset forfeiture on its website.

Law enforcement groups successfully mobilized to beat back the proposed 
reforms, claiming that civil asset forfeiture is a critical law 
enforcement tool. We agree that forfeiture should be available to law 
enforcement. But not in its current form.

There are plenty of urgent and sensible reforms - including increasing 
the burden of proof for asset seizures and restrictions on the use of 
forfeited funds - that could curb abuses and decrease the odds that 
innocent people are unfairly deprived of their property.

The Texas Legislature failed in its obligation to protect citizens' 
liberties. But this issue is not going away.

Earlier this year, we helped to launch the Coalition for Public Safety, 
an unprecedented national bipartisan coalition of funders and advocacy 
partners that is focused on smart, fair and just criminal justice 
reform. Groups from across the political spectrum have joined forces to 
address our most pressing issues in criminal justice, including civil 
asset forfeiture. Just this year, these groups have succeeded in 
enacting reforms in both red and blue states. A number of important 
efforts are also underway at the federal level.

Reforming America's civil asset forfeiture laws is a centerpiece of the 
coalition's efforts. It must also be a priority for every Texan who 
cares about personal and economic liberty and the fair application of 

The authors are co-founders of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and 
the Coalition for Public Safety. Contact them through
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