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Don’t Mess with Texas on Civil Asset Forfeiture

If you haven’t heard the slogan, “Don’t mess with Texas,” you either live under a rock, or you’ve never met a Texan. While engaging in a conversation on civil asset forfeiture at an event hosted by Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Liberty Leadership Council, Texans proved that their slogan also applies to their sentiments on criminal justice reform. The conversation, held on the patio at Chapman & Kirby in Houston, was led by Right on Crime’s policy analyst, Michael Haugen.

Haugen kicked off the conversation with a rundown on how civil asset forfeiture came to exist. Vastly different than how it’s used today, Haugen explained that civil asset forfeiture’s roots can be traced back to a relatively narrow usage—namely, the seizing of pirate ships during America’s infancy,  and even further back to biblical times (Exodus 21:28). Today, the little-known practice has mutated into allowing law enforcement agencies to seize and keep personal property for a whole host of suspected wrongdoing – without proof of a crime, criminal charges, or a criminal conviction. Whether cash, vehicles, or other items of property, Haugen underlines that it’s forfeiture’s baked-in profit incentive—law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep the property, regardless of any verdict—that has led to “a 4,000% increase in federal civil asset forfeiture in the last 40 years.”

So, how did we get here? Haugen points to the expansion of the war on drugs. While established as a tool for combatting drug trafficking, civil asset forfeiture nonetheless ensnares Americans who have no affiliation or record of drug trafficking – much less any other criminal activity.  In fact, in fielding one of the questions asked at the event, Haugen clarified that, “due to a lack of reporting requirements, it’s difficult to know what activity civil asset forfeiture is used against.”

Unfortunately, Texas is not a safe haven from this practice, nor do the laws enforce a robust reporting requirement that could possibly set the “tough-on-crime” state above the rest. “Between 2001 and 2013, roughly $541 million dollars has been seized through civil asset forfeiture in Texas,” Haugen said.
After being read in to the reality of this practice, Texans voiced concern and asked what they could do to turn civil asset forfeiture on its head. Haugen directed them to become more active in organizations like the event co-hosts, TPPF and Generation Opportunity. “At TPPF, we believe in being ‘tough on crime,’ but we draw the line at requiring criminal convictions before property can be seized under asset forfeiture,” Haugen said. “As a liberty-minded state, it’s time for Texas to reform this practice.”

This event was sponsored by Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Liberty Leadership Council, with event planning and hosting support from Right on Crime and Generation Opportunity. The event was held Thursday, November 2nd.  Find pictures to the event on Twitter and Facebook.

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