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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

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, 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.