Texas Supreme Court Justice Don R. Willett recently spotted a flaw in how part of the state’s justice system operates.
Joined by two other justices, he dissented from the court’s majority on a case involving civil asset forfeiture, a subject the state’s highest civil court has not visited in depth since 1957.
These “forfeitures” are misnamed. They’re really property seizures by local, state and federal authorities who are investigating a possible crime. Agencies can keep what they take, sometimes thousands or even millions of dollars in cash, even if no crime is ever proven or even formally charged.
That’s dangerous, Willett wrote after the majority declined to hear one of these cases, noting that property owners are “presumed guilty and required to prove their innocence” to get their property back.
Bottom line, Willett wrote, “constitutional liberties are unavoidably imperiled.”
A team of senior-level TCU journalism students, taught by a pair of professors and supervised by professional journalists, partnered with the Star-Telegram this year to examine civil asset forfeitures, how they have changed over time and how they affect property owners and local agencies involved.
What the students found, detailed in a special report to Star-Telegram readers, is a system that has grown exponentially, is seldom challenged in court and is plagued by lack of concern for transparency.
The Legislature enacted reforms in 2011 after a Senate committee investigation. Now agencies are supposed to file detailed reports on seized assets to the state attorney general’s office.
The AG’s 2013 report shows nothing from the Tarrant County district attorney’s office. Yet data provided by the DA’s office show $3.5 million seized that year, with $843,636 spent on salaries.
The Tarrant County Narcotics unit seized $666,427 and spent $426,058 on salaries.
Those examples alone are enough to illustrate Willett’s point that “the intersection of power and profit is a troubling one.”
Texas courts and lawmakers should re-examine civil asset forfeitures.