Monday, April 25, 2016

Shining a light on civil asset forfeiture reform

Posted by  @ Florida Watchdog, April 4, 2016, News,  5 Comments  (Emphasis added by me. RK)          

This year, if history holds, Texas law enforcement officers and prosecutors will pocket most of about $60 million in cash and property taken from people in asset seizures.

Since the beginning of this century, criminal justice officials have vacuumed up more than half a billion dollars on the pretext of suspicion, no arrest or conviction necessary.

State law places the burden of proof on the innocent, whether they are proven guilty or not. And while there is a growing and focused effort to correct the injustice, powerful figures in law enforcement and government have resisted changing the law in Texas.

To make matters worse, the Department of Justice last week announced it was resuming something it calls “equitable sharing,” a program that allows local law enforcement to circumvent state laws and make property seizures under federal law and share the spoils.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation is hosting a panel discussion of this practice, civil asset forfeiture, beginning with a lunch at 11:30 am Thursday, April 7 at the foundation office, 901 Congress Ave. in Austin.

The event is free and open to the public.

One of the panelists, Derek Cohen, deputy director of the foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, is expected to discuss his new study pinpointing where in Texas civil asset forfeiture is most abused, and the reasons for it.

Cohen will be joined on the panel by Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow for the Charles Koch Institute, who in 2010 helped launch the national Right on Crime initiative.

Cohen, who has written extensively about civil asset forfeiture reform, told Watchdog this week that true reform doesn’t involve impeding or impugning law enforcement.

Reformers and the public support the seizure of money and property in cases where crimes are committed and convictions obtained, many of them for drug trafficking crimes.

In February, South Texas judges in separate cases ruled law enforcement was within its right to seize a helicopter and an airplane connected to major Mexican drug cartels.

What Cohen found, however, is an alarming rise in the number of seizures of small amounts resulting from routine traffic stops on major Texas highways and in rural areas.

Systematic property seizures in Texas came to national attention in stories done by the New Yorker in 2013.

“What started out in the 1980s as interdiction in the drug trade has become nickel and diming of people who don’t have the wherewithal to fight to get their property back,” Cohen said.

In his role as a researcher, Cohen said he has resisted concluding law enforcement has been willfully engaging in what the Institute for Justice calls policing for profit.

The IJ says Texas has one of the worst climates for civil asset forfeiture of any state in the Union, and little incentive to shift the burden of proof to law enforcement.

“This view, right out of the box, impugns the motives of police,” Cohen said. “I prefer to think the laws in Texas empower laziness rather than evil intent.”

In the public mind, however, civil asset forfeiture is just another revenue stream, like the fines and fees imposed on the poorest people to support fully half of the operation of  riot-ravaged Ferguson, Mo.

In chronicling the hundreds of millions of dollars seized over the past 15 years in Texas in its 2014 report, the state’s Office of Court Administration warned that unfettered the system offered “considerable potential for abuse.”

The threat helped prompt the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in Houston to establish the Coalition for Public Safety last year.

In an editorial for the Dallas Morning News last year, the Arnolds dared suggest that one reason no one in Texas government is eager to raise the bar for asset seizures is how much the current system benefits law enforcement.

“Civil asset forfeitures have become a critical source of funds for many budget-strapped police departments and district attorneys’ offices throughout the state,” they wrote. “ We agree that forfeiture should be available to law enforcement. But not in its current form.”

If not in its current form, what form? Last year New Mexico and Montana became the first two states to require a conviction for law enforcement to take possession of cash and property involved in crimes.

Reformers in Florida are awaiting the signature of Gov. Rick Scott on a bill that would require law enforcement officers make an arrest, establish probable cause for a seizure in court and increases the cost to begin a forfeiture proceeding.

If Cohen had a “magic policy wand” Texas would adopt the same law as New Mexico. Politics makes for an imperfect world. Short of that, law enforcement agencies should be required to turn over forfeited property to their city’s general fund or to the state and be required to make a case for getting some or all of it back, he said.

In this past legislative session, state lawmakers offered up no fewer than 15 civil forfeiture reform bills. All but two never made it to the floor.

House Bill 3171 introduced by state Rep. David Simpson, R- Longview, which would have required a conviction, met a typical fate.

The bill made it to the House State Affairs Committee, whose chairman is Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, a legislator who has over the years carefully cultivated the support of law enforcement.
And that is where Simpson’s bill stayed.

“Law enforcement was opposed to this piece of legislation,” Cook said at the time. “This is a valuable tool for law enforcement that Rep. Simpson wanted to take away.”

Cohen is convinced the Legislature can be made to see this valuable tool for law enforcement is a tax on individuals least able to take on police officers and assistant district attorneys.

Education, like his study and the upcoming panel discussion, is Cohen’s most valuable tool.

 is the deputy editor. He first served as a national Watchdog reporter and then became the bureau chief for Texas Watchdog. He spent almost 30 years in newspapers, 14 of those years for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a decade with the Austin American-Statesman. Mark can be reached on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

My Take - Civil Asset Forfiture is blatantly unconstitutional!

Why is that so hard to understand?

Why does that have to be explained over and over again.  Why do states Attorneys General and enforcment officials need to have that explained to them - over and over again!  I don't care about their claims about this being an invaluable tool against the organized criminal.  The biggest corruption they're dealing with is their own.  They are robbing people without charge or conviction.  They need to be arrested and thrown into jail.  We need to understand the Congress cannot pass laws that over ride the Constitution.

Why is that so hard to understand!!!!!!!

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