Law enforcement agencies fight civil forfeiture in state legislature

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Texas law enforcement agencies are fighting bills with bipartisan support in the state Legislature that could limit law enforcement’s powers to seize and withhold property from a person suspected of criminal activity — under a law known as civil forfeiture.

Passed in Texas in 1989, civil forfeiture was intended to seize assets from criminals such as drug traffickers and burglars. But over the decades, law enforcement have seized cars, televisions, wallets and other valuables along with increased instances of innocent people losing their property, according to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian think tank.

Prompted by fears that innocent people could have their property taken, two companion bills in the Legislature would restrict civil forfeiture provisions and require criminal convictions before law enforcement can seize most assets: Senate Bill 380 authored by state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Ft. Worth, and House Bill 1364 authored by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. 

“Senator Burton wants police to have the tools to fight crime, specifically large criminal enterprises, but we must respect the rights of the people at all times,” Elliot Griffin, Burton’s chief of staff, said in an email. “Reforming current civil asset forfeiture laws in Texas are necessary to that end.”

The state Legislature has made repeated attempts since 2001 to change civil forfeiture provisions, but consistent opposition from law enforcement has hindered reform. This legislative session will be no different, said James Mclaughlin, executive director of the Police Chiefs Association, who registered against Thompson’s bill last month.

“We oppose really all changes to asset forfeiture,” Mclaughlin said. “We always do.” 

UT Law Professor Susan Klein said civil forfeiture laws are beneficial because the government does not always know who owns property, and repealing civil forfeiture would allow criminals to hide their assets with other people.

“Repealing civil forfeiture would be a mistake,” Klein said. “Drug dealers tend to give their property to their spouses, or business partners or other people. Getting a conviction against a drug dealer doesn’t necessarily help.”

Thompson’s bill, HB 1364, also received strong opposition from a multitude of district attorney offices during its committee hearing, including the Travis County District Attorney’s office. Thompson’s legislative director Brete Anderson said the breadth of opposition was no surprise because “there are a lot of agencies who get their funding from (civil forfeiture).”

The Institute for Justice calculated that Texas law enforcement received up to 70 percent of the proceeds from seized assets between 2003 and 2013, coming out to more than $540 million. Maclaughlin said Texas county district attorney offices are responsible for distributing seized assets and usually strike agreements with law enforcement agencies on how to split the assets. 

In 2014, Texas Office of Court Administration released a report on asset forfeiture in Texas that shows how law enforcement uses these funds. 

“State law enforcement agencies often report that after paying salaries, they have little money left over to buy necessary equipment,” the report said. “These revenues are important to many law enforcement agencies as supplements to their budget.”

Klein said one of the best ways to fix issues with civil forfeiture is to make sure law enforcement has no incentive to receive money.

“The only incentive for civil forfeiture should be to punish law breakers,” Klein said. "If we change the law regarding who gets to keep the money, we can fix a vast amount of the abuses."

Both bills are still pending in their respective committees.