We last reported on the need for enforcement authority and auditing in the asset forfeiture program to prevent abuses as discussed during the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence hearing.
During the hearing, State Rep. Terry Canales (D–Edinburg) reported, “There [are] counties where DA offices are seizing 150% or more of their yearly budget.” He and other members also went on to discuss how some of the offices are using asset forfeiture funds to pay membership fees to the Texas District and County Attorney’s Association (TDCAA).
If true, those uses of asset forfeiture funds present conflicts of interests for local law enforcement.
According to the committee, TDCAA is an association that lobbies against increased civil asset forfeiture reporting requirements. Essentially, government agencies are using the resources they’re seizing from Texans to fund efforts aimed at stifling reform.
This reinforces the calls to significantly restrict how the proceeds from seized funds can be spent. Many people familiar with civil asset forfeiture have heard a similar story of government entities using seized funds to outfit an office, or worse. If officials are using funds to benefit themselves or their office, it creates an incentive to abuse the process.
Another incentive for seizures are equitable sharing agreements between DA’s offices and local law enforcement agencies. Sharing agreements are agreed upon by each local entity associated with a seizure. Together they determine the percentages – usually based on involvement in each case – by which the funds will be divvied up.
Sharing agreements need to be standardized so local entities aren’t able to agree upon higher percentages that encourage them to abusively seize private property. One option is to redirect seized funds to a “general fund” to be used on effective programs already operated by the criminal justice system, such as drug treatment therapy and counseling, for example.
Quantifying asset forfeiture abuse in Texas is difficult because of the opaque and complicated nature of the process. While law enforcement regularly assumes the blame for civil asset forfeiture, the heart of the problem lies with the ways in which the existing laws are structured. The legislature needs to work with both law enforcement and citizens groups to develop an equitable resolution.