Days after Republican Party of Texas delegates voted overwhelmingly in favor of abolishing civil asset forfeiture, the Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence held a hearing to discuss the process in which property of suspected criminals is seized by the state in civil court proceedings. Civil asset forfeiture has been the subject of much scrutiny due to complaints of abusive seizures and the denial of due process to people who have been accused of crimes.
During the three-hour hearing the divide between the law enforcement community and those seeking reform was evident. The law enforcement professionals who spoke in favor of the controversial practice labeled it a “necessary tool” that enhances their ability to do their job. Those against the practice pointed to numerous, well-documented abuses and a lack of public accountability. There were three overarching areas of reform addressed that we’ll cover in three articles: transparency, auditing, and use restrictions.
Transparency and Reporting
One of the most obvious areas in need of reform is in reporting. Transparency cannot be effectively achieved if reporting laws require the reporting of volumes of largely irrelevant information. This practice makes meaningful information more difficult to find.
The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) receives an individual report from 2,700 agencies annually that contribute to the OAG’s asset forfeiture report. While the reports given to the OAG are extensive, the final report from the Attorney General’s office only contains the information required by law: the aggregate amount forfeited to the state and whether it was seized by law enforcement or forfeited to the state’s attorneys.
For any additional information, Texans must file open records requests to individual agencies. That hurdle ensures the public information isn’t readily available.
Many of the 2,700 reporting agencies don’t even seize assets, but state law requires any agency could possibly be involved in the process to submit a report. For example, it requires volunteer fire departments to report. This process consumes time and resources for both the reporting agency and the OAG. So in other words, there’s too much irrelevant information that has the effect of clouding transparency, not improving it.
To streamline the reporting process and enhance transparency, the legislature needs to limit the required reporting to agencies that actually have something to report. Also, they should require the OAG’s report to include: the number of arrests, convictions, and cases; and itemizations detailing what was seized, its value, and when it was seized.
When asked if these reforms would be beneficial, Assistant DA Karen Morris of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office testified:
“The more specific information you have you’re just overloading the system and you’re not able to get a clear picture…you can get that information through the district clerk’s office.”
But reformers aren’t seeking to simply increase the amount of information reported—they want relevant information to be disclosed, and to stop the practice of filing meaningless reports that cause valuable information to be buried in a haystack of data.
Unsurprisingly, the agencies utilizing asset forfeiture don’t support real transparency improvements. Only in government is the appearance of transparency more important than actually delivering results.