Two years ago the Texas Legislature slipped into the state budget an item mandating a thorough review of certain civil forfeiture proceedings. Civil forfeiture -- the process state and federal prosecutors use to seize property from suspected criminals, whether they've been convicted or not -- is a source of perpetual controversy. Partly, this is because the practice sidesteps defendants' constitutional due process rights (e.g. the right to an attorney, the presumption of innocence, etc.) by filing suit against the property itself, which explains the existence of cases such as United State of America vs. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton and State of Texas vs. Twelve Gold Coins. Partly, it's because the resulting stash of forfeited cars and cash often prove irresistible to certain prosecutors who may, for example, need to buy the silence of the driver he or she crashed into or a margarita machine.
|Just a tiny fraction of the cash Texas cops have seized over the past decade.|
The legislative mandate, however, said nothing about examining the philosophical underpinnings of civil forfeiture or the potential for abuse. As a result, neither did the final report, quietly released last month by the state's Office of Court Administration, beyond a brief acknowledgement that because of lax reporting requirements, "There remains considerable potential for abuse." Instead, researchers spend much of the study examining a more pragmatic question: Whether civil-asset forfeiture, specifically when it's initiated by the Texas Department of Public Safety, is worth it for local district attorneys.More »