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Policing for profit: Texas police seized more than $50 million of property – but not everyone was guilty of a crime

EDGAR WALTERS and JOLIE MCCULLOUGH | 12/28/2018, 4:09 p.m.
In February 2016, prosecutors in Houston filed a lawsuit against a truck: State of Texas vs. One 2003 Chevrolet Silverado.
Having represented property owners in forfeiture lawsuits, Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton filed a bill last year that would have required a criminal conviction for such forfeitures. Bob Daemmrich

The Texas Tribune

In February 2016, prosecutors in Houston filed a lawsuit against a truck: State of Texas vs. One 2003 Chevrolet Silverado.

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 the truck’s owner, Oralia 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. Hernandez pleaded guilty to delivering drugs and spent several months in jail.

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.

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.

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.