Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why restrict using asset forfeiture fund for drug treatment?

Random bill idea: I was looking up something unrelated in Chapter 59 in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure on all things asset forfeiture and noticed this odd restriction at 59.06(j): "the director of a state law enforcement agency may use not more than 10 percent of the amount credited to the special fund of the agency under that subdivision for the prevention of drug abuse and the treatment of persons with drug-related problems."

Why restrict spending on drug treatment to 10 percent of asset-forfeiture funds if the local agency wants to spend more? And, one wonders, where did the 10 percent figure come from? That subsection should be deleted during the 84th Texas Legislature or at least the percentage raised. That's exactly the sort of thing for which asset-forfeiture income should be paying, if we're going to have it at all.

Does anybody know why this restriction exists? If so, please enlighten us in the comments.

And speaking of asset forfeiture, Forbes recently (6/5) published a story titled "Cops in Texas seize millions by 'Policing for Profit'." The article opened:
Texas law enforcement are continuing to enrich themselves using a little-known legal doctrine known as civil forfeiture, according to a new series of investigative reports. Under civil forfeiture, property can be forfeited even if its owner has never been charged with a crime. In these proceedings, accused criminals have more rights than innocent owners and the government sues the property, not its owner. These cases can be so baffling, one Texas Supreme Court Justice recently compared civil forfeiture to Alice in Wonderland and the works of Franz Kafka. But civil forfeiture isn’t just a quirky curiosity—it’s a powerful incentive for law enforcement to take millions.

Last month, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the District Attorney’s Office in Tarrant County, Texas seized $3.5 million, plus almost 250 cars and 440 computers in fiscal year 2013, roughly equal to about 10 percent of its budget. Of the property seized, almost $845,000 was spent on salaries for 16 employees at the office. By comparison, only $53,000 went to “six nonprofits that benefit victims or prosecution efforts.” The county’s narcotics unit spent an even greater proportion of forfeiture funds on salaries. Last year, the unit seized $666,427 in cash and used $426,058 to pay salaries.

Even more property was forfeited by participating in a federal program known as “equitable sharing.” By partnering with a federal agency, local and state law enforcement can keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds from a forfeited property. Incredibly, police can collaborate even if doing so would circumvent their own states’ protections for property owners.

Equitable sharing doled out almost $60,000 to the Arlington Police Department and nearly $400,000 to the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Department of Public Safety in 2013. A joint task force composed of the Tarrant County DA’s Office and the DEA received almost $2.9 million, one of the highest bounties in the state.

In Texas, law enforcement can keep up to 90 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property. That clearly affects police priorities and provides an incentive to pursue cases rich in assets. In another article, the Star-Telegram delved into the forfeiture battle that ensued after law enforcement busted a low-level drug ring at Texas Christian University (TCU). Police arrested twenty-three people for selling marijuana, pills and other controlled substances. Most of those arrested were TCU students, including four members of the football team. No one went to prison; they got probation, deferred adjudication or the charges were dismissed. Others received punishments as low as $300 in court costs.

Yet by using civil forfeiture, police seized over $300,000 worth of property from the students, including 15 cars, trucks and SUVs valued at more than $250,000; over $46,000 in cash; and over $17,000 from laptops, iPads, iPhones and the like. As the paper noted, “The items were seized before formal charges were filed and months before any convictions.” But according to an after-action report issued by the Fort Worth Police Department, the drugs seized in the investigation only had an estimated street value of $29,000. So the property seized was worth far more than the drugs that were actually taken off the streets.


Anonymous said...

The restricting provision has been the law since 1991.

The provision was enacted by the 72nd Legislature, Regular Session. In SEC. 1 of HB 1185, which was authored by Rep. René Oliveira and coauthored by Reps. Roberto Gutierrez and Leticia Van de Putte, what is now Subsec. (k) of Art. 59.06, was the last sentence of Subsec. (h), as added by the bill.

Anonymous said...

Can't verify this but have heard 3 different prosecutors interpret this as money dedicated to prosecution for costs of obtaining plea bargains to treatment for drug offenses. Incentives for prosecutors to seek treatment before incarceration.

Anonymous said...

There are a whole host of reforms to Texas' asset forfeiture laws that are needed. Why limit ourselves to removing the 10% cap to drug treatment? Why do the police get to keep the money at all? It's a blatant conflict of interest. The money should go to the government entity that oversees the police and elected officials should make that decision on how to spend the $$ in the light of day for everyone to see. If the police do get to keep the loot, then the AG should have to put together an annual report on how much all the police depts. and DA's offices received from forfeitures and how they spent the $$. The AG receives all these audit reports from depts. (CCP 59.06(g)) but he's not reporting them in any way. Is his office even looking at them for problems? MSM here's a story for you to dig in to.