(The Texas Tribune) - In January 2016, Houston police took $955 from a man they said was a gang member with a criminal history because they suspected he was selling painkillers found in his car during a traffic stop. When prosecutors discovered he had a valid prescription for the drugs, they dropped the possession charge.
But the man’s money still went into the coffers of the police department and the local prosecutor.
A few months later near the U.S.-Mexico border, a Webb County sheriff’s deputy pulled over a southbound car that Border Patrol agents had flagged for having hidden compartments. There was nothing in the compartments, but because deputies suspected it was tied to drug trafficking, they still seized the 2007 Nissan Altima. The driver wasn’t charged with a crime.
The seizures highlight the controversial but complicated nature of a common policing practice called civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement agencies can take and keep a person’s cash and property without charging the person with a crime. Instead, the government sues the property itself in civil court — where property owners have no right to a court-appointed lawyer — leading to oddly-named lawsuits like The State of Texas v. one 2005 Ford Mustang.
State and local law enforcement agencies bring in about $50 million per year through state asset forfeiture laws, but there is little data on how this powerful tool is used in Texas. Agencies and prosecutors must report their overall profits from seizures to the state, but law enforcement officials have successfully fought legislative proposals that would require them to release data on how much is taken in individual seizures, and how often they are tied to a criminal charge.
The counties in our investigation
The Texas Tribune pored over thousands of pages of court records to shine a light on how asset forfeiture is used by law enforcement agencies in four Texas counties: Harris County, the state’s most populous and home to Houston; Smith County in East Texas; Reeves County in West Texas, which seized hundreds of thousands of dollars of suspected drug money hidden in cars being hauled by tractor-trailers; and Webb County on the border, where many seizures came from traffic stops on the southbound lanes of Interstate 35 heading toward Mexico.
The Tribune studied 560 forfeiture cases filed in 2016, resulting in the seizure of nearly $10 million and 100 vehicles (the investigation doesn’t include federally-prosecuted seizures, and the Tribune chose cases from 2016 in order to capture their final outcomes). The study included six months of cases from Harris County, and all 2016 seizures in the other counties.
The cash seizures were as small as $290 and as large as $1.2 million, and police took vehicles ranging from a 1982 Chevrolet truck to a 2011 Cadillac Escalade. They also seized property like Rolex watches, gold chains, and a 60-inch television.
The Tribune’s analysis also found:
Half of the cash seizures were for less than $3,000. In Harris and Smith counties, more than two-thirds were under $5,000.
About two of every five forfeiture cases started with a traffic stop.
Many cases were connected to possession of small amounts of drugs. In Smith County, a woman’s 2003 Chevrolet Trailblazer was seized after police found half of a gram of suspected methamphetamine and a partially-smoked blunt in the car.
In nearly 60% of the cases, people didn’t fight their seizures in court at all, resulting in judges turning over the property to local governments by default.
Two of every 10 cases didn’t result in a related criminal charge against the property owner or possessor; in Webb County, more than half didn’t.
And in about 40% of the cases, no one who had property taken from them was found guilty of a crime connected to the seizure.
The full report from the Texas Tribune can be found by clicking here.
See also the video player above for a conversation on First News at Four with one of the lead reporters on the project.