Texas lawmakers are chewing over several civil-forfeiture reform bills, ranging from the weak (allowing police departments to use forfeiture money to fund scholarships for children of officers killed in the line of duty) to the strong (Representative David "God made weed" Simpson's to do away with civil forfeiture entirely. As Grits for Breakfast noted earlier this week, most of those are stalled or, shall we say, marinating. Sometimes it takes lawmakers a couple of sessions to get familiar with a measure before they pass it.
There has been a rather fascinating development in the debate, however, in that state Representative Jason Villalba, known friend to the Texas lawman, has managed to stir up police and prosecutors with a seemingly unobjectionable proposal to beef up transparency and enhance reporting requirements concerning the use of forfeiture funds.
The bill is a direct response Dallas County DA Craig Watkins' forfeiture-related shenanigans, the hush money he paid to the guy whose car he wrecked, the strong-arm recovery from a tow company of a seized Porsche the DA's office effectively abandoned in a county parking garage. Specifically, the measure would prohibit forfeiture funds from being used for the "direct or indirect benefit of any person" and would require police departments and district attorneys offices to publish on the agencies' websites quarterly reports detailing how the money was spent.
Who could possibly object to adding a dose of accountability and transparency into how property seized from sometimes innocent people -- property owners need not be convicted, or even accused, of a crime -- can be spent? The cops and prosecutors who benefit from the funds, who lined up on Monday in opposition to Villalba's bill.
They voiced a handful of specific objections to the bill, which range from easily surmountable to risible. Many worried that the no "direct or indirect benefit" clause would preclude them from using forfeiture money to pay confidential informants and make undercover drug buys. Requiring detailed quarterly reports could somehow compromise ongoing investigations that relied in some way on forfeited property, the said. And many small departments lack websites, much less the wherewithal to post expenditure reports on them.
(To address these, in reverse order. One, if a police department is big enough to seize property, it is probably also big enough to use the Internet. Two, if in fact there is a danger that reporting an expenditure will compromise an investigation -- and it's hard to envision how that might play out so long as cops refrain from including comments such as "DRUG PURCHASE, 04/20/2015, JAMES WHITE, DOB 1/2/83, YOU ARE SO SCREWED! LOL." -- certainly there's a tweak that could exempt such disclosures. Three, if it gets harder to pay confidential informants and get buy money, two tools that are very useful for targeting low-level drug offenders, is that really a bad thing?)
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But it was their big-picture assertion -- that forfeiture reporting doesn't need to be reformed because it is so transparent already -- that was perhaps the most ludicrous. A prosecutor from Chambers County called civil forfeiture "one of the most transparent processes in the state of Texas" on the grounds that forfeiture lawsuits are filed in open court. That's true, but it's also true that the statewide data on forfeiture -- essentially the aggregate amount of property seized and the broad category of what it was spent on -- is so vague as to be useless for researchers, policy makers, or anyone else trying to understand how the process is used.
Shannon Edmonds of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, basically the DA lobby, capped things off by arguing that Villalba's bill sought to address a problem that was adequately addressed by current law. Watkins' defeat at the hands of Susan Hawk was proof of that. He "answer[ed] at the ballot box...That's the way these things should work." Never mind that the discovery of Watkins' questionable expenditures had more to do with sleuthing by WFAA's Tanya Eiserer and The Dallas Morning News' Jennifer Emily than with any checks and balances built into forfeiture law.
In the end, the bill was left to languish in committee. Poor Villalba. The dude just can't catch a break.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.