Texas public policy foundation
Civil asset forfeiture reform bill offered in Texas
 
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This article, written by Matt Hurley, originally appeared in Heartland on April 23, 2015.

A Texas state representative is introducing a bill to require local and state law enforcement agencies to obtain a criminal conviction before seizing individuals’ cash or property.

Currently, Texas law enforcement agencies can seize private property believed to have been used to commit crimes, using a process known as civil asset forfeiture.

A Profitable Practice

Texas Public Policy Foundation Senior Policy Analyst Derek Cohen says civil asset forfeiture seizures are very profitable for the state’s law enforcement agencies.

“In 2012, Texas law enforcement and prosecutors ended the year with $143,040,730.74 in their forfeiture accounts,” Cohen said. “Of course, this is all ‘on your honor’ self-reporting to the attorney general’s office, [which has] no audit authority, so this is the absolute most conservative estimate one could produce for forfeiture as a whole in Texas.

“The problem is that, practically, being forced to spend time and money to exert one’s ownership interest forces an individual to determine if the restoration of their ownership interest—which is not guaranteed—is worth the guaranteed costs of legal representation and court fees,” Cohen said.

‘Absent Due Process’

Cohen says civil asset forfeiture laws purposely make it difficult for innocent citizens to reclaim their property from the government.

“There is no reading of the abstract concept of property rights that allows for property to be forfeited, absent due process,” Cohen said. “Thus, people are given a difficult, costly pathway to remediation. It is completely arbitrarily enforced, and when patterns are demonstrable, they are not in the best interest of public safety but rather the pecuniary interest of the police department.

‘Fruit of Someone’s Labor’

The bill’s sponsor, Texas state Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview), says civil asset forfeiture violates property rights.

“Property is the fruit of someone’s labor,” Simpson said. “As such, property, like one’s life and liberty, should be protected by law and not taken from someone by force, unless a person is convicted of a crime through due process of law.”

Protections, Property Rights ‘Eroded’

Simpson says governments are violating civil liberties in the name of public safety.

“In keeping with ‘war on drugs’ policies, many of these constitutional protections and property rights have been eroded to provide law enforcement ‘tools’ to go after criminals,” Simpson said. “Civil asset forfeiture gives a semblance of following due process, but because it proceeds against the property and not against a person, current law allows the proceedings to be pursued under civil statutes where a right to an attorney, the presumption of innocence, and an underlying criminal charge are not necessary to deprive someone of their property.”

Matt Hurley (wmdtvmatt@yahoo.com) writes from Cincinnati, Ohio.