Asset seizure is an important tool for law enforcement to have in their toolbox. When done correctly, it undoubtedly benefits the communities that the illicit assets or funds are removed from. But, just one case prosecuted unjustly calls the entire system into question.
Increasingly, and especially when resources are limited, law enforcement agencies rely on seized funds to supplement their budgets. While police chiefs say the practice is necessary to provide officers with additional training the track record is more than suspect.
In 2009 one Texas prosecutor spent more than $25,000 in forfeiture money to take his entire staff, their spouses, and a judge on a Hawaiian vacation. In New York, money seized assets have been used to shore up NYPD’s pension fund. Though some uses of forfeiture are exceptionally egregious, most are more innocuous expenditures such as converting a confiscated Camaro into a police car and making the break room just a little bit more hospitable with a margarita machine.
While the information is staggering, it’s not exactly surprising. After all, there’s nothing to prevent police departments from going on spending sprees and with broken disclosure laws there’s little citizens can do to even be informed on what’s going on let alone object to it.
The use of seized assets is only a part of the issue that needs addressing. There’s no doubt that the Texas Legislature should implement strict use restrictions for what District Attorneys, Sherriffs, Police Departments, DPS, and other entities can use forfeited funds. But even if the uses are strictly limited, having seized assets or funds given directly back to the seizing agency is problematic.
Regardless of the use, if the funds are continually redirected back to the agency that seized them there will always be a perverse incentive to seize funds.
A report commissioned by the Legislature in 2014 reinforces the need for reform. Even the language used in the report shows the desire to seize and the reliance on forfeited funds to properly function.
“Counties reap significant net benefits from the average DPS-initiated forfeiture case. Because DPS may purchase equipment and training for local law enforcement agencies with these funds, forfeiture cases have trickle down benefits throughout the county,” reads the report.
Imagine police departments openly talking about “reaping the benefits” of ticket fines or other justice-related fees. There would be no question about the incentive to ticket more.
The report continues, “On average, a DA will spend just $702 prosecuting a forfeiture case and will receive $15,182 in proceeds.” At that rate of return it is obvious why DA offices across the state send lobbyists to Austin to testify and oppose any reforms to the asset forfeiture process.
The report sampled 20 county and district attorneys and found that while 13 had forfeiture revenue less than 10 percent of their budget, three were between 12 and 32 percent, and four counties were raking in 70 percent or more of their budget size. The report notes that out of those last four, three of them took more in asset forfeiture revenue than their appropriated budget.
The problem isn’t with any asset forfeiture. Criminal asset forfeiture is a welcome tool that most take no issue with. Civil asset forfeiture is what is wrong and forces innocent Texans to get caught up in the system and forced to legally defend their property.
Setting strict use restrictions and ending the cycle of forfeited assets going directly back to the seizing agency is just a start towards correcting the injustice, but it’s a move in the right direction.