Texas Police Get Average $62,000 Bonus From Seized Assets
Alcohol, concert tickets, exotic vacations, sports cars, private homes, drugs, and even prostitutes. These are just some of the things police officers around the country have been caught purchasing using money gained through civil forfeiture. According to the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office, law enforcement in Tarrant County alone seized over 440 computers, 246 cars, and $3.5 million. Reports show almost a million dollars of this money was diverted into the salaries of the office’s 16 employees, which averages out to a $62,000 per employee.
Law enforcement groups are able to do this through a thoroughly ignored process known as civil forfeiture. Using civil forfeiture, police and prosecutors can seize people’s private property, auction it off, and use the money to fund their agency’s budgets. Property owners need not be convicted, or even charged with a crime to have their homes, cars, money, or other property taken from them by the government.
Researchers at the Institute For Justice have dubbed this practice “policing for profit” or “#YOLO for cops”; claiming that civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on American’s rights in recent history.
“Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” reads an IJ brief.
Scholars for The Institute for Justice created a grading system for state’s civil forfeiture practices. The grade is determined by how well government agencies respect citizen’s property rights. According to a comprehensive report of all fifty states, only three states received a B or better.
The Lone Star State received a D- from the group, ranking it among some of the worst offenders in the country; even below California and New York. This is because in the last seven years alone, Texas law enforcement officials have raised over $225 million in civil forfeiture proceeds under state law and $200 million in equitable sharing with the federal government.
While some states require that it be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that seized property be tied to criminal behavior, law enforcement in Texas only need to show a preponderance of the evidence to take private property. This means that all a police department is required to do is show that there is greater than a fifty percent chance the property was used for criminal behavior to seize it. The burden of proof then falls on the property owner to prove his possessions’ innocence.
A preponderance of the evidence is not enough to convict someone of a crime, however it is enough for the government to take their property away from them. Since property seizure is a civil matter, defendants who can not afford a lawyer aren’t entitled to have one appointed. This is generally because charges are not made against the property owner, but the property itself. Several Texas Christian University students found this out when they had over $300,000 of their property seized by police for a small drug bust that yielded nothing more than probation for those involved.
Forbes has called civil forfeiture a “powerful incentive for law enforcement to take millions.” Across the country, innocent people have seen their bank accounts emptied, cars impounded and homes seized to pay for the local police department’s budgets; a practice that those at the Institute for Justice argue has to stop.
To counteract the incentives for police departments to use funds gained through civil forfeiture to benefit their own departments, the IJ scholars have come up with a solution to both combat corruption, and better the community. Instead of allowing law enforcement agencies to keep the funds they seize, IJ scholars suggest they be placed in a general fund or donated to specific charitable causes. In addition to this, they argue that the standard for proof be raised for civil forfeiture; meaning police departments would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the money they’re seizing to pay for a company vacation was actually used for criminal behavior.
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