Texas Among Top Offenders When It Comes to Civil Asset Forfeiture
Last week, while we enjoyed some post-work margaritas at a local taqueria, I told my editor, a recent arrival from California, about the time a district attorney in Montgomery County made headlines after it was discovered he'd used money seized by police to buy a margarita mixer and booze for a party.
While we both laughed at the absurdity of the story, it eventually led to a serious conversation about a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, in which police can seize, keep, and freely distribute a citizen's money or property without charging them with a crime. In fact, as I learned while Googling examples on my phone, authorities press charges against the items themselves. (See United States v. Article Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes More or Less, Each Containing One Pair of Clacker Balls, for example.)
To be fair, the practice started as a means of taking illegally obtained money and resources from organized crime circles in hopes of crippling their ability to do business and putting those assets to work for good - hiring more police, etc. But there are several examples of abuse of the program, as I discovered while trying to entertain a friend over drinks.
I don't claim to be any sort of expert on this subject, but from what I understand, each state has its own forfeiture laws that local law enforcement can bypass by handing seized assets over to federal authorities, who can then return as much as 80% of the proceeds back to the local department via a process known as equitable sharing.
Two years ago, the Institute for Justice ranked Texas 47th for federal forfeiture, with over $349 million in Department of Justice equitable sharing proceeds from 2000 to 2013.
You may think that innocent parties have nothing to worry about, but sadly, that's not always the case.
According to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, the United States Supreme Court has held that seized property is considered guilty until proven innocent, and that the "innocent owner" defense is not constitutionally required. In fact, even in states with innocent owner laws, the burden of proof lies on the person whose property was seized. In other words, they must go to court to prove that they were not taking part in criminal activity, had no idea their property was involved or even suspected of being used in illegal activity, or that they took every reasonable step to detect and put a stop to such use.
Late last year, the Department of Justice suspended payments under its Equitable Sharing Program, but resumed the practice in March of 2016.
If this entire process seems frightening to you, you're not alone. But I found this hilarious video of Jon Oliver, host of "Last Week Tonight", breaking it down for laughs while still providing several disturbing real-life examples of civil asset forfeiture in action.