Justice Thomas Calls Attention to Asset Forfeiture Abuses

March 07, 2017 by

A Texas woman whose civil asset forfeiture case was denied review by the U.S. Supreme Court may not have received the outcome she was hoping for, but she got Justice Clarence Thomas to speak out against the practice and its growing abuses.

Lisa Olivia Leonard’s son, James, was pulled over in Texas in 2013. Upon searching the car, cops found a safe, said to have belonged to Lisa, with over $200,000 in the trunk along with a bill of sale for a Pennsylvania home. The police seized the money on the claims that it was connected to the sale of narcotics. Since then, Leonard has been fighting the case, claiming her rights were violated.

“This system . . . has led to egregious & well-chronicled abuses.”

Justice Thomas, while agreeing that civil asset forfeiture is often abused, supported the refusal of certiorari to bring the case before the court. His reason was that Leonard failed to bring one of her legal arguments to the Texas Court of Appeals, essentially not giving the appeals court the opportunity to rule based on all of the facts of the case.

Justice Thomas issued a statement respecting the court’s decision, but making his view of the issue known saying, “This system – where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use – has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.”

“These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture.”

This statement comes at a time when the debate surrounding asset forfeiture continues to heat up. Recently, victims of asset forfeiture in Philadelphia were allowed to join in a class action lawsuit against the city’s asset forfeiture machine.

The Texas legislature is no exception – there have been numerous bills filed this session tackling forfeiture head-on. Some attempt to fully abolish it, and others are less transformative but important nonetheless, including:  increasing the evidentiary standard, providing relief for innocent owners, and changing the way forfeited funds are given out to agencies. Advances in any of these areas this session would be a step in the right direction and will leave Texans with a system far better than what they currently have.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.