Scott Bullock, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, believes that “Texas has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country [because] police and prosecutors get to keep the property they seize,” according to the Houston Chronicle.
Texas State Senator John Whitmire also believes we need more transparency and accountability in how assets captured by law enforcement in criminal investigations are expended.
In Texas, unlike other states, local law enforcement departments are given broad discretion regarding how to spend assets seized through criminal forfeitures of confiscated property. This policy was designed to incentivize the capture of drug criminals’ cash, but as The Economist has reported, it may invite abuse and create perverse incentives.
Indiana decided that forfeited assets should go to the general school fund, but according to a new Institute for Justice report, Texas sheriffs and district attorneys have spent seized assets on a margarita machine, office retreats, and a sports car. These agencies have come to depend on forfeitures to make up their yearly operating budget.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Tehana, Texas, near Houston, employed a system of routine traffic stops and seizures of whatever cash they can find. Some who lose several thousands of dollars are never actually charged with a crime, while Tehana holds onto their cash as some victims reportedly do not have the resources to begin the costly court procedures necessary to get it back.
While it is important to incentivize effective administration of justice, it is also important to ensure public funds go for their intended public safety purposes and that unwarranted arrests are not made simply to enrich the government.
Sen. Whitmire introduced a bill on this issue during the previous session of the Texas Legislature. The bill would have simply created transparency, authorizing audits to ensure that seized assets are actually used by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors for fighting crime. Though the bill did not pass, it is a needed first step in the reform of Texas’ forfeiture laws and the Legislature should take another look at it this session.