Most people have more or less forgotten the high-profile TCU drug bust of February 2012. Aside from the presence of four football players among the 18 arrested and the relatively rare chance for TV stations to run a mugshot gallery full of privileged college kids, the revelation that a bunch of young people had been running a small-scale drug ring on campus just wasn't all that shocking.
Kudos to TCU journalism students and the Star-Telegram for sticking with the story. They teamed up on a very solid investigative piece highlighting the rather striking incongruity between the criminal activity and the value of the property seized by police.
To be clear, the TCU students were dealing drugs and all were ultimately convicted. But this wasn't exactly the Sinaloa cartel. The students were peddling marijuana and pills in amounts small enough that none were sent to prison, escaping instead with probation or deferred adjudication.
Fort Worth police nevertheless used their powers under Texas' civil forfeiture laws rather broadly, seizing $46,243 in cash; 15 vehicles worth more than a quarter of a million dollars; nine weapons; and nearly $20,000 worth of iPhones, iPads, MacBooks and cellphones. In other words, anything police remotely suspected may have been used to facilitate drug dealing or been purchased with its proceeds.
Some of the vehicles have been returned. One defendant got his Fort F-150 back by paying the Tarrant County narcotics unit $17,500. Another paid $7,500 for his Cadillac Escalade. But that took months of legal wrangling and lots of attorney fees. Most of the students quickly gave up hope of ever seeing their phones and laptops again.
Maybe that's the right outcome. Here's betting Fort Worth police seize this type of property in lower-profile drug cases all the time; why should the college kids be any different?
The potentially concerning thing is how the outcome is arrived at. These are civil seizures, meaning that defendants don't get the due process protections they do in criminal cases and that the burden of proof for law enforcement is much lower. Indeed, prosecutors need not even secure a conviction in order to keep someone's property. It turns the presumption of innocence on its head.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.