In 2014, the state of Texas received more than $33 million in forfeiture assets, some of which go back to counties to help fund budgets for law enforcement and district attorneys offices.
But some Texas lawmakers believe some local authorities are taking advantage of civil forfeiture assets and have filed two bills in hopes to change that.
Private attorneys and some lawmakers say local prosecutors and law enforcement aren’t playing by the rules with civil asset forfeitures, but the Wichita County District Attorney said abuse of forfeiture powers doesn’t happen in her district. And she wishes the state would focus on the bad apples and not changing the entire law.
“Forfeiture cases are quite frequent,” said attorney Rick Bunch.
According to the Institute for Justice, Texas agencies reported a fiscal -year average of nearly $41.6 million in forfeiture assets. Bunch said the civil asset forfeitures often start with a traffic stop.
“And they’ll search and they’ll search and they look primarily for money. They find drugs, they’ll seize that, but money is fungible and they can use it. It’s kind of become a game. They’re policing for profits.”
Bunch said in forfeiture cases, property owners are not eligible for court appointed attorneys and many can’t afford to hire an attorney to get their property back.
“Most of these cases, these civil asset forfeiture cases that get filed in district courts end in default judgments,” said Gabriella McDonald, the Pro Bono New Projects Director with Texas Appleseed. “People just don’t answer, they don’t know how to get their money back. Often times it’s in small denominations and the lawsuit is against the property itself.”
Texas Senator Konni Burton and State Representative Senfronia Thompson introduced the bills that would repeal civil asset forfeiture and instead establish criminal asset forfeiture.
“We’re talking about property rights that we believe in and hold dear,” said Thompson. “We talk about the constitution and we talk about everybody playing by the rules, law enforcement as well as citizens also.”
Thompson said the bill would prohibit confiscation of property until a person is convicted of a crime.
Wichita County District Attorney Maureen Shelton said in her district, law enforcement isn’t out harassing people to confiscate money, because they have to have a valid reason. If it’s not proven, they don’t proceed. A policy she set up when she took office.
Shelton said law enforcement isn’t always happy with her policy , but it’s the right thing to do.
She said civil forfeitures shouldn’t be combined with criminal, she says she believes this will bring more abuse and would cost the county and taxpayers.