Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Slate of forfeiture reform bills heard, but not much moving and time is short

Quite an array of bills on asset forfeiture reform have been featured lately on the western side of the capitol, if not so much in the press. Rep. David Simpson's legislation to abolish civil forfeiture entirely was heard in House State Affairs last week. And several notable bills on the topic were on the agenda in the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee last night, primarily pressed by advocates from the conservative Institute for Justice and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. (Your correspondent supported these measures on behalf of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.)

Of the bills reviewed last night by Chairman Abel Herrero's committee, Rep. Jason Villaba's HB 2116 drew perhaps the most animated law enforcement opposition. That bill would restrict what police and prosecutors could spend money on to items listed in the code and require additional, quarterly reporting of expenditures posted on the agency's website. He's aiming to confront the situation former Dallas DA Craig Watkins created when he used forfeiture funds to settle a lawsuit stemming from a traffic accident he caused. Prosecutors do not want the public to have access to that information, objecting to additional reporting requirements. But the vehemence with which they objected to seemingly banal language limiting expenditures to articulated categories makes one think there must be a lot of expenditures that don't fit within those strictures. Else, why all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over holding them accountable to the text of the law?

There were several other good forfeiture reform bills on the Criminal Jurisprudence roster. Rep. Matt Schaefer's HB 1975 would put the primary burden on prosecutors to disprove an innocent owner claim. Rep. Jeff Leach's HB 249 and Phil Stephenson's HB 472 would install additional reporting about seizures and whether they stemmed from criminal convictions. And Rep. Terry Canales' HB 1012 would change the standard by which prosecutors must prove assets are related to criminality from the current "preponderance of the evidence" to "clear and convincing." (This is a companion to Chuy Hinojosa's SB 95, which is presently stalled in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee; see prior Grits coverage of that bill.)

With this much bipartisan interest, one would think forfeiture reform might stand a chance this session. But time is short - less than six weeks remain in a 20 week session - and no forfeiture reform bill has yet been voted out of committee in either chamber. Further, the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, while being referred the most bills of any standing House committee, has so far voted out fewer than 20, putting it on a much slower pace than its peers. So unless Chairman Herrero and Co. act on these with uncharacteristic alacrity, there may not be time for anything but a floor amendment strategy. And even then, with so few bills moving on the topic anywhere in the process, there aren't many captions floating around to be amended.

Still, there have been lots of good ideas proffered on forfeiture this session and good groundwork laid for the issue going forward. None of these bills were filed in 2013 and often it takes two or three sessions for new suggestions to percolate their way through the process.

At a minimum, there's clearly enough interest in the House that the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee deserves an Interim Charge to study these suggestions and other potential forfeiture reforms. Perhaps with a little more interim prep and study, these ideas could enter the 85th Texas Legislature with more momentum or even support from the leadership. This year, the effort's been more of  a bottom-up affair.


Anonymous said...

HB2116 NEEDS TO PASS! Yes, the public should have the right to know. Purchases with these funds should be very restricted and published for public viewing whether requested or not.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this the same source of funds that paid for a lot of people and their families to go to Hawaii for "training." Think it was one of the towns on I-10 around San Antonio?

Anonymous said...

I still find it stinky (and a huge conflict of interest) that prosecutors and police are allowed to spend the funds they recover! Wrong kind of incentive. And too bad if they don't like the restrictions - they always have the option of NOT spending it.

TriggerMortis said...

This is Texas, the reddest state in the union. No way in Hell that republican legislators take these millions away from law enforcement. No. Way. In. Hell.

Republican controlled states steal using this unconstitutional process to help make up for the shortfall in funding caused by their refusal to tax their constituents.

I will gnaw my left arm off beginning at the elbow if this method of theft is ever outlawed in any republican state.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

None of these incrementalist bills outlaw forfeiture, TM. Simpson filed one that does that but it's languishing in another committee.

Anonymous said...

They stole it, they should be allowed to keep it.