There are few criminal justice issues more criminal than civil asset forfeiture. Under the current system, law enforcement officers are allowed—in some cases encouraged—to seize private property even when there is little to no evidence that the accused actually committed a crime.
As per the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, citizens are supposed to be treated as innocent until proven guilty — until fair and due process objectively concludes otherwise. This issue is fundamentally important to the concept of individual rights, which our nation was founded upon and which should be addressed by reformers with great urgency.
Currently, the courts require a very low burden of proof to seize private property, which has resulted in systematic encouragement to abuse the policy in many departments, thereby creating more innocent victims. As a remedy, the criminal justice system must reestablish due process if the fundamental individual property rights of Texans are to be meaningfully respected. In many cases, governments seize the property and auction it off to create slush funds that benefit public officials and—spoiler alert—are subject to gross misuse.
Two years ago Craig Watkins—Dallas County’s former District Attorney—was in a serious accident, totaling his car. Instead of paying for the accident, Watkins used revenue from the civil asset fund to repair his car and keep it hidden from taxpayers. As the county’s chief law enforcement officer, this sets a terrible precedent for due process, individual rights, and liberty for those citizens.
Champions of individual rights will be pleased to know that Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s recently released interim charges made addressing civil asset forfeiture a priority:
“Conduct a study of CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE laws in Texas and compare them to similar laws in other states. Determine best practices to protect public safety and the private property rights of citizens. Examine the reporting requirements and recommend legislative changes if needed to ensure transparency…”
The legislature needs to discourage law enforcement officers from unduly violating citizens’ property rights so that Texans can avoid situations like this and restore integrity to the criminal justice system. In order for that to happen, civil asset forfeiture needs to be addressed.