Pubdate: Mon, 25 Apr 2016
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2016 The Dallas Morning News, Inc.


In just over a decade, Texas law enforcement collected more than half a 
billion dollars, $540.7 million, in cash and personal property from 
Texans suspected of breaking the law. Known as civil asset forfeiture, 
this legal practice leaves average Texans vulnerable to having their 
assets seized by police, no trial or proof of guilt necessary.

Texas is among the worst states in the nation for civil asset forfeiture 
abuse. The Institute for Justice's "Policing for Profit" report gave 
Texas a D+ and said the state leads the nation in average annual 
forfeiture proceeds, at roughly $41.6 million.

And, this kind of abuse will likely get worse in Texas. Just last week, 
the Department of Justice announced it is resuming its Equitable Sharing 
Program. Under this program, state law enforcement can earn additional 
revenue by using federal law to seize assets from private citizens they 
simply believe are guilty of criminal activity without the trouble of 
going through due process.

The behavior this kind of program incentivizes is hard to miss. In 
Texas, up to 70 percent of the proceeds from forfeiture go to law 
enforcement. This revenue is not only used to supplement salaries and 
pay for new equipment in Texas, it is also used for other important 
policing business like lavish trips to Hawaii, gambling trips to Vegas, 
and booze and a margarita machine.

So, civil asset forfeiture and programs like the Equitable Sharing 
Program create very strong incentives for law enforcement to focus 
efforts on asset forfeiture as a way to maximize budgets. And, these 
programs do little to reduce crime.

It turns out that very few of the cases in which asset forfeiture is 
used actually result in criminal charges, and even fewer are ever 
brought to criminal trial. This means that many of the people who lose 
their cash, vehicles, homes and prized possessions were never involved 
in an actual crime. Furthermore, it reveals that some police resources 
are wasted on harassing innocent Texans instead of prevengin and solving 
crimes like murder, assault and burglary.

And while law enforcement is only held to a more-likely-than-not 
standard, it is up to the private citizen to prove in court that his or 
her assets were wrongfully taken. Going to court, hiring a lawyer and 
paying all of the necessary fees can be very time consuming and 
expensive (often beyond the value of the assets taken,) so many people 
whose belongings were wrongfully taken are frequently deterred from 
trying to get them back.

Texas has been praised for its economic freedoms, but it has work to do 
when it comes to protecting property rights from asset forfeiture. 
Increases in property rights protections lead to more investment, more 
jobs, and greater growth. As some people face harder times due to oil 
and gas price declines, this is exactly what many regions in Texas need 
right now.

There are several ways that Texas could improve property rights 
protections by limiting asset forfeiture. The Governor of Florida just 
signed a bill requiring police to file criminal charges before seizing 
property. Other states like Montana and New Mexico recently changed 
their laws to require a criminal conviction before assets can be seized. 
New Mexico has also eliminated the revenue-seeking incentive for law 
enforcement by requiring that all proceeds go to a general fund instead 
of directly to law enforcement. Texas could certainly follow these 
examples to better protect the property rights of Texans.

Audrey Redford is a doctoral fellow with the Free Market Institute at 
Texas Tech University. Reach her at  ---
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