Civil Asset Forfeiture Primer Shows Potential for Reform in Texas

In the past week the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation had a Civil Asset Forfeiture Primer at the Capitol, where they assembled a panel of policy makers, legislators, and authorities to give their expert opinions on the matter and to take questions from the audience. Andrew Kloster, a legal fellow from the Heritage Foundation that focuses on civil rights issues was present, along with Matt Miller from the Institute of Justice where he fights for property rights. They were joined by Shannon Edmonds from the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and Texas State Representative David Simpson. The Center for Effective Justice’s Derek Cohen moderated.

Mr. Cohen began by giving the audience background into the issue of civil asset forfeiture. He mentioned that the idea of forfeiture goes as far back as the Roman Empire and has continued on through out the ages before becoming a bone of contention between England and its colonies before and during the American Revolution. He summed up the issue currently in the terms that it has been referred to by media from all sides. Some look at civil asset forfeiture as an “indispensable tool” for law enforcement and prosecutors while others see it as “policing for profit” and “a sustained assault on the Fifth Amendment and due process.”

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The speakers eagerly discussed the topic. Andrew Kloster began by delving deeper into the reasoning behind the creation of civil asset forfeiture in the American system and how that has devolved today into an abused mechanism in modern day law enforcement.  Shannon Edmonds also chimed in clarifying that civil asset forfeiture was intended to make sure that the proceeds of crime didn’t end right back in the pockets of criminals.

But all agreed that the current situation has resulted in spectacular abuses. Families threatened with the removal of their children, owners of small businesses losing their assets, and case after case of small funds and property taken bit by bit from innocent and often helpless citizens. The money is usually enough to make it worth taking, but not enough to justify the legal expense involved in getting it back, leaving most people without representation or due process.

Both Kloster and Miller spoke of the incentive structures that are present in the current system. When law enforcement is making decisions about whether or not they seize assets, they are making decisions about whether or not their office receives that much more funding. It was made clear that the worry about the incentive structure is not because police and prosecutors are bad people, but that they are having temptation thrown very subtly in their way and that it would be better for them and the public to restructure the system.

Miller spoke of several possible ways to address the problem. The first was an outright ban on civil asset forfeiture. States such as North Carolina and Minnesota have either removed the practice or limited it enough to make it obsolete. This would be a more difficult option, with opposition from several lobbies. But short of that, there are several options. A requirement that the funds not go directly to law enforcement or prosecutors’ offices is a step in the right direction, removing the incentive that they have to increase the seizures. Another change that is needed urgently is to ensure that there is due process to the citizens being threatened under this practice. The burden of proof needs to be one the state instead of the citizen, giving those who have no representation a fighting chance at recovering their property. A third option is to have better reporting by the benefiting office about where the funds are coming from, what form they are being obtained in, and information about what happens in hearings, for example, whether or not the individual had representation.

Finally, almost all of the speakers referenced equitable sharing, an arrangement where law enforcement realizes that they are constrained by local laws, perhaps the asset in question isn’t on the list of seizable items, and they then alert and involve federal enforcement and prosecutors to the situation. These groups, operating on different guidelines, then seize the assets and provide the alerting authorities with a percentage of the profits. Matt Miller strongly recommended limiting or eliminating this practice.

Shannon Edmonds argued in favor of retaining the practice. While not disputing that there had been cases of misuse that should be cause for concern, he also believed that the funds procured by the practice were necessary for the continued operation of law enforcement. Quoting Latin, he argued that “misuse of something does not render it useless”.

The audience seemed largely unswayed by his statements, addressing most of their questions to him. They embodied a growing desire in the state to put an end to the practice that exposes every citizen to threat of seizure. The upcoming session provides an opportunity for legislators to make a change.

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Marc Levin: Remember and empower victims of crime

While crime has been declining for two decades, 1 in 14 Americans experienced a property crime and 1 in 40 a violent crime during 2012. To pay tribute to victims and survivors, the federal government has designated April 6 to 12, 2014 as National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

This is a time to turn our attention to the true consumers of the corrections system – those who have been personally wronged by an offender. Too often, rather than focusing on empowering victims and ensuring they receive restitution, the process emphasizes an offender’s “debt to society,” often in the form of fines and fees that go into the government’s coffers. This fixation on the prerogatives of the government has too often marginalized the rights and voices of victims.

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“Reagan had it right: We must not forget America’s crime victims”

In celebration of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, ROC signatory and Director of the American Conservative Union’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform Pat Nolan, along with national crime victim advocate Anne Seymour, authored “Reagan had it right: We must not forget America’s crime victims” for Fox News.

“At Right on Crime, we strongly believe that crime victims and those who serve them are important partners in any efforts to improve our nation’s systems of justice – federal, criminal, juvenile, tribal and civil justice – and the fair treatment of victims of crime.”

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National Crime Victims’ Rights Week

April 6-12 is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Crime victims and survivors have an integral role in America’s criminal justice system and efforts to promote individual and public safety.  The overall effectiveness of the criminal justice system relies significantly on victims’ willingness and ability to participate in justice processes. Right on Crime created the below infographic to illustrate how and why our criminal justice system should prioritize victims.

Click here to enlarge the infographic.

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Marc Levin, Right on Crime, featured in Texas Monthly


Courtesy of Texas Monthly


Texas Monthly’s Nate Blakeslee highlights Marc Levin and Right on Crime in his article “Why Fewer Prisons Are Good for Texas’s Economy.”

“Levin’s chief message, that incarcerating too many people for too long for nonviolent crimes isn’t a good use of taxpayer funds, has resonated with conservative voters and legislators. He advocates more effective and less costly measures, such as drug courts, which divert low-level drug offenders to treatment programs instead of prison, and more effective use of probation.”

Click here to read the whole interview.

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