Policing for profit

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A targeted motorist traveling on any of a number of well-worn grooves in the Lone Star State is motioned to the shoulder by the flashing lights of a patrol car.

Typically a Hispanic driving a rental car, a black man or woman obviously on the road to a gambling mecca at Shreveport or Oklahoma City, a truck driver operating a rig with a Rio Grande Valley address on the door, or a couple driving a slightly worn sedan or SUV, they get the good news from the patrolman that he has reason to believe they are transporting drugs, or laundering money – or some other outlandish accusation.

Asked to alight from the vehicle, a thorough search takes place and they are “detained” and transported or escorted to police headquarters – or, perhaps, the local hoosegow.

What they have in common is they are the kind of people who don’t look like they will fight back, according to a growing number of scholarly studies by think tanks, both conservative and liberal.

When it’s learned they have a large stash of cash, the officers summon a prosecutor who explains they have one of two options. They can sign a waiver and surrender their money, or they can see the judge, who will charge them with money laundering, set their bond – and they can call a lawyer.

What lawyer?

The one who will demand cash money up front to open a file, represent them for a criminal offense, help them contact a bondsman who will charge them a wallop of greenbacks to get them out of jail. Represent them through the rigors of years of endless, droning docket calls out of town.

Then the prosecutor – often the Criminal District Attorney in person – has a little heart to heart, come-to-Jesus conversation with his quarry.

This can all go away in the blink of an eye. Just sign the paperwork and walk way, step back into your lives, as if nothing ever happened, and all will be well.

Something happened, all right, and it’s starting to attract a lot of attention in the national media, as publications such as “The New Yorker,” the “Washington Post” and “New York Times” chronicle these outrageous roadside rip-offs.

What happened is the police and the jurisdiction’s chief law enforcement officer, the criminal district attorney, just took the extra-judicial route of relieving them of their assets – cash, car, valuables – without filing any criminal charges whatsoever.

It’s positively medieval, this thing of the King’s Men and Counsel coming out of the night to take whatever they wish to take – and it happens every day.

Members of the Legislative Strike Force will gather Saturday at 12:30 pm, American Legion Post 379 at Bedford,1245 N Industrial Blvd, to discuss all this with District 16 State Senator Don Huffines, Republican.

People will remember him by the last minute amendment he offered for the Open Carry Handgun Law that passed the 84th Legislature. If one must have a concealed carry handgun license to “wear” a handgun openly holstered, he reasoned, then why should it be mandatory to stop and prove it to every police officer who observes a person walking about wearing an openly holstered sidearm?

The amendment passed by a coalition of both conservative and liberal Senatorial votes amidst a furor of opposition from police who openly announced their intended defiance, but it was slapped down when the bill returned to the House of Representatives and the full Legislature for a final vote.

Needless to say, much of the Legislative Strike Force is made up of members of the Confederation of (motorcycle) Clubs who had gathered at Twin Peaks Restaurant on May 17 to hear about progress of that and other proposed open carry bills when “shots rang out.”

Huffines, a fifth generation Texan with a family background in automotive dealing, has a lot to talk about when it comes to civil asset forfeiture. Among his assignments, he is tasked as a member of the Intergovernmental Relations Committee.

That’s important, because it takes an interlocal government agreement between any law enforcement agency and the District Attorney’s office to deposit seized funds and account for property seized in reports to the U.S. Department of Justice under strict guidelines. Civil forfeitures are to be earmarked for the acquisition of police equipment. 

Needless to say, local governments throughout Texas are extremely secretive about these arrangements, and they have the law on their side, according to an extensive study in its second edition, published by the Institute For Justice. Local governments nationwide seized $29 billion worth of cash and assets through civil means over a 14 year period. In only 13 percent of cases, the government proved a criminal violation.

Local governments get 80 percent of what they seize, but under a complicated set of laws and regulations, information is unavailable because most states don’t keep records. Most who do keep records produce documentation that is unreadable, abstruse, difficult to decifer.

The practice “threatens basic rights to property and due process,” according to the Institute for Justice,” and without reform, “It’s only going to get worse.”

The study gives Texas a D+ for its grade in compliance with the law, with many agencies refusing to identify what they bought and paid for with the money they seized.

According to a white paper by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, “Unfortunately, delineating civil fofeiture from that which occurs pursuant to a criminal conviction is impossible under current reporting law.”

In fact, the report says, “defining just how much civil asset forfeiture occurs in Texas is impossible.”

Why?

Under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Chapter 59, Article 59.06, agencies tthat engage in asset forfeiture only report topline summaries of the value of what is forfeited to the Office of the Attorney General.

Good luck.

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This map shows the areas where the most civil forfeitures are reported

But an open records request revealed some tidbits, such as the fact that “the 2012 total for Denison – a city in Grayson County astride U.S. 75 just before the Oklahoma border – posted a staggering amount in their forfeiture account of nearly $54 million.”

Somewhat tongue in cheek, the report adds “This was well beyond the amounts of previous years, and if accurate would give the town the largest account in the state…” One would wonder, why put down your money on the crap tables and roulette wheels of the casinos across the Red River, when the real gamble is, will you make it to the land of the Red Man with your money in that pocket or that purse?

In the Institute for Justice study, ranking of Texas law enforcement’s dependence on forfeiture funds found that of the top 10, intake of civil forfeiture money is, on average, about 37 percent.

To calculate that percentage, we removed one agency, the 76th District Attorney in Camp County (Pittsburgh, county seat) from the top 10 because its forfeiture proceeds represented an astonishing 1,344 percent of its budget, and that skewed the average.”

You’ve got to ask youself, why don’t they tell you what they really mean?

Similarly, the smaller agencies (those serving less than 1 million people) among the top ten forfeiture earners report forfeiture proceeds in excess of 65 percent of annual budgets.”

The Texas State Auditor’s Office revealed a whopper in a report published in October, 2015. The Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s Office paid a $47,500 legal settlement in fiscal year 2014 related to a claim against the former elected DA. Their holding is the payment was illegal under the law because it relieved the official for any liability in a judgment rendered in a traffic accident in which the elected official was driving a county vehicle. Therefore, since a benefit was obtained, the payment was illegal.

In the payment of $16,525 related to a contempt matter naming the former District Attorney as a defendant, the auditors declared it illegal to use state asset forfeiture funds to pay those fees.

So mote it be.

 

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