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Texas Police Earn at Least $50 Million Annually From Seizing Property
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Texas Police Earn at Least $50 Million Annually From Seizing Property

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TEXAS - December 7, 2018

Police and law enforcement agencies in Texas earned more than $50 million in 2017 from the confiscation of people's property. Officials call it the fight against crime, but in fact it turns out that crime is generated by the police, where money is obtained fraudulently.

In February 2016, one such case occurred with the owner of a Chevrolet Silverado truck when Houston police had seized the vehicle after surveilling its driver, Macario Hernandez, and pulling him over after he left his house. They took the truck to court, hoping to keep it or sell it at auction to fund their operations, claiming the vehicle was known to be involved in the drug trade.

But Rodriguez was never charged with a crime. She wasn't at the scene when officers pulled over Hernandez, her son, and found 13.5 grams of marijuana in his pocket. In fact, Rodriguez said she had recently loaned him the car so he could drive his pregnant girlfriend to the doctor. The girlfriend was having difficulty with her pregnancy and was at risk of losing the baby, Rodriguez said. She was desperate not to lose her truck, which had recently had new tires installed among other repairs, which she was still working to pay off.

"My sole intention was to help out… Now I am in this situation of losing what I have worked very hard for," she wrote to local prosecutors. "I am begging you please allow me to have my truck back."

Seven weeks after police pulled over the truck, the Harris County District Attorney's Office resolved the suit and agreed to release the vehicle back to Rodriguez, on the condition that she never loan it to Hernandez. But Rodriguez still had to pay $1,600 to get her truck back, plus any towing and storage fees it had accumulated over the course of the lawsuit.

What is interesting in this story, law enforcement agencies often do not wait for the proceedings, and sell the detained and confiscated property at auctions. Then you have to find the new owner to buy it from him. The procedure is more complex and costly.

Although what happened to Rodriguez was perfectly legal. Under a process known as civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement can take cash and property they believe to be related to criminal activity, even if the person involved is never charged with a crime. Prosecutors then file suit against the property, and if successful, police may keep much of it for their own purposes.

In another case in March 2017, Kate and Agios Sanchez were in the spotlight after a scandal with a stolen car in El Paso.

Surveillance cameras later revealed that the couple's car was seen near the scene. During the investigation, it was also found out that the stolen car belonged to an old friend of the family, with whom there was a conflict. Police arrested both with confiscation of their property in the form of a personal car.

The court trial lasted almost six months. During this time, the police found a new buyer through an auction, who bought the car and moved to California. To get his car back, the Sanchez family had to go through a whole procedure. Moreover, the purchase of the car cost twice as much as its original cost.

A civil asset forfeiture is a tool supported by law enforcement leaders, who say it is necessary for fighting crime but panned by both liberals and conservatives who see it as a violation of Americans' civil liberties and sometimes refer to it as “policing for profit.” It's a longstanding, nationwide practice that has regained steam under the Trump administration but faces constitutional challenges in court.

When police seize a person's property, the onus falls on the owner to prove the property was “innocent,” or not linked to a crime. If a person doesn't fight the seizure in court -- which is what happens in the majority of cases -- they lose their property automatically. Many cases involve property worth no more than a few thousand dollars, and attorneys' fees can end up being more costly than the value of the property itself. Also, if the property is provided by the police for more than three months, then most likely after that it goes to the new owner.

Last year alone, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors throughout Texas grew their coffers more than $50 million by seizing cash, cars, jewelry, clothing, art and other property they claimed were linked to a crime. That includes property seized under both criminal forfeiture -- which requires someone to first be found guilty of a crime -- and civil forfeiture, which allows the state to sue the property itself and doesn’t require a criminal charge. The Texas Attorney General’s Office, which tracks these figures, does not distinguish between the two.

How much property and money was seized from people, like Rodriguez or Sanchez, who weren’t charged with any crime? That information isn’t collected in any meaningful way in Texas, and state lawmakers, at the urging of prosecutors and law enforcement, have resisted attempts to report more detailed information about asset forfeiture to the public.

"One wonders if our colonial ancestors, transported to 2014, would be astonished -- watching government seize, then sell, the property of guiltless citizens who have not been charged with any crime, much less convicted of one," former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, a Republican who has since been promoted to a federal appeals court by President Donald Trump, wrote in 2014. "A generation ago in America, asset forfeiture was limited to wresting ill-gotten gains from violent criminals. Today, it has a distinctive 'Alice in Wonderland' flavor, victimizing innocent citizens who’ve done nothing wrong."

Extreme cases of abuse have occasionally grabbed the attention of the public and of lawmakers, who in 2011 made a rare move to rein in police seizures. That followed a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union a few years before, which alleged that police in the tiny East Texas town of Tenaha were conducting “highway robbery” by shaking down drivers -- primarily people of color -- for cash under threat of jail time. The suit accused law enforcement in Tenaha of threatening to have children removed from their families if the drivers they’d stopped on U.S. Highway 59 didn't sign waivers allowing officers to seize their property without a court proceeding.

From 2006 to 2008, officers in Tenaha seized approximately $3 million from at least 140 people, according to the lawsuit, which was ultimately settled with local law enforcement not admitting to wrongdoing. With the lawsuit in the news, Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 signed legislation prohibiting the use of such waivers, forcing all forfeitures to go through court.

The law also limited how law enforcement can spend the money they seize, banning officials from using it to pay for things like margarita machines, as former Montgomery County District Attorney Michael McDougal did in 2005 -- or trips to Hawaii, as a former Hill Country district attorney, Ron Sutton, did from 2002 to 2007. The legislation passed just months after a former South Texas district attorney pleaded guilty to misappropriating more than $2 million in seized funds, paying $1.2 million in bonuses to three secretaries and another $81,000 to himself.

The 2011 law faced almost no opposition, but some Democrats and Republicans at the Texas Capitol have called for further reforms to an asset forfeiture system they believe is inherently abusive. Lawmakers on the left cite forfeiture’s disproportionate effects on low-income people of color who can't go to court to fight back. Those on the right cry out against government overreach that infringes on private property rights and snubs due process.

In recent years, however, most efforts to change the system have fallen flat at the Capitol. Sheriffs, prosecutors and police have urged lawmakers not to further limit a power they say is crucial to their ability to fight crime and drug cartels -- and which they say was already cleaned up by the 2011 law. Law enforcement officials say taking money and drugs linked to cartels is one of the most effective methods they have to fight them.

"We're sitting here at the tip of the spear of cartel activity, and we need asset forfeiture as a tool," Jackson County Sheriff A. J. "Andy" Louderback said. "It's a viable tool that we're not misusing. … There's accountability in the system that's been there for a very long time."

The battle over reform will continue in January when the Texas Legislature convenes for its biennial session. At least two lawmakers have already filed bills that would limit asset forfeiture’s scope, and the Texas Republican Party asked lawmakers to abolish asset forfeiture without a criminal conviction in their 2018 platform Still, reformers face long odds: Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have remained almost completely silent on the issue, and after last month’s elections, advocates lost one of their most vocal Republican allies in the Texas Senate.

Author: USA Really