If you're not familiar with Tenaha, Texas, go back and read this The New Yorker piece from August detailing how police and prosecutors in the tiny East Texas town used civil forfeiture laws and a phantom suspicion of drugs to seize cars, cash, jewelry and anything else they could find from innocent travelers passing through on U.S. 59. The level and audacity of the abuse is stunning.
Tenaha, a town that effectively devoted itself to robbing passing motorists, offers an extreme example, but the abuse of civil forfeiture laws is common. Intended as a way to target drug dealers and other suspected criminals who haven't necessarily been charged with or convicted of a crime, there is very little oversight at the state level at how they are employed. The result is plenty of cases like that of Mary and Leon Adams, an elderly couple in West Philadelphia whose home was being seized after after their adult son was caught selling small quantities of weed there, according to The New Yorker.
The takeaway is that civil forfeiture laws need to be reformed so that they are applied judiciously.
Some on the Dallas City Council seem intent on heading in the opposite direction. At a briefing this morning, Public Safety Committee chair Sheffie Kadane wondered why business owners aren't punished when police catch someone doing or selling drugs at a bar or restaurant.
"My understanding is in some of these places, it's just blatantly out in the open there, passing drugs, selling drugs ... Shouldn't the owner be liable some way if they're doing drugs in his facility, whether he knows it or not -- and I'm sure he knows it."
Police officials told Kadane that prosecuting a business owner would require evidence that he was actually involved in drug sales.
Here, Councilman Dwaine Caraway chimed in with a suggestion that criminal prosecution might not be necessary. He urged DPD to begin using civil forfeiture laws much more aggressively.
"Whatever it takes to get us to get us to that point, whatever level of legislation is necessary, all we have to do is seize the house that drugs are being sold out of [and] ... the landlords will do a better job of deciding who they rent to."
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Nor would Caraway stop at drug dealers and their landlords.
"You have marijuana in your car and you have cocaine and methamphetamines in your car, your car can be seized," Caraway said. "I want to start seizing property."
Kadane seconded Caraway's charge to DPD. Whether anything will come of it remains to be seen, but it's nice to see the council tackling such a serious civil liberties issue.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.