On December 2, Dallas Police posted a photo on Facebook of over $100,000 cash that a police K9 alerted other officers to and the department seized.
The photo sparked a conversation across social media and politics about civil asset forfeiture laws which allows police to seize any property they think might be involved in a crime or will be involved in a crime.
Property owners do not need to be arrested or charged with a crime to have their cash, cars, jewelry, art, or even real estate taken by police. If the owner of the seized property wants it back, they have the responsibility to prove the property is not involved in criminal activity.
The owner must contest the seizure in civil court and acquire legal representation, which can be expensive and complicated. Sometimes the property taken is worth only a few thousand dollars or less, which means citizens would spend more in legal fees than what the property is worth.
If the property owner loses the battle in civil court or does not contest the seizure, cities and agencies can add the money to budgets and sell off other seized property to add that profit to budgets.
A 2018 report by the Texas Tribune found that Texas police made more than $50 million in 2017 from seizing people’s property.
Another report by the Washington Post found that law enforcement nationwide had seized more than $60 billion between 2001 and 2014 from citizens who were never charged with a crime.
Lubbock resident and former Marine Stephen Lara are one of the most viral civil asset forfeiture cases.
In February of this year, Lara was driving from Lubbock to California to meet his daughters when a Nevada State Trooper pulled him over for a traffic violation. The officer asked Lara if he had any drugs, weapons, or large sums of cash in the car.
Lara responded that he was traveling with his life savings and did have over $10 thousand cash in the car because he did not trust banks.
The officer called in a DEA unit with a drug-sniffing dog and claimed that the dog captured the scent of drugs on the money, allowing it all to be seized.
Lara was not arrested or even given a ticket for his traffic violation. In a video of the incident with over four million views, Lara tells the officer that he is “taking food out of his kid’s mouth” by seizing the money.
“If this could happen to me, as a combat veteran who served overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, this could happen to anybody,” Lara says in the video posted by the Institute of Justice, which is representing him in a lawsuit against the DEA and the Nevada State Highway Patrol for the “illegal seizure.”
After the lawsuit was filed and the Washington Post reported on the situation, the DEA returned all the money. However, the Institute of Justice has said they are still pursuing the lawsuit.
Most will agree that traveling with a large amount of cash is incredibly suspicious and probably not wise. Civil asset forfeiture laws were intended to give law enforcement a way to stop large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. Law enforcement leaders maintain that it is a vital tool for fighting crime.
In a 2017 legislative session to discuss potential changes to civil asset forfeiture laws, Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith defended the current law.
“In my law enforcement career, we could not have been effective in doing away with gangs, drug cartels and whatever without the civil asset forfeiture,” Smith said, “many times forfeiting civil assets is the only way you’re going to get to the kingpin of the operation.”
Despite the support of law enforcement for the current law, reforming the way civil asset forfeiture is used has remained a bipartisan goal in the Texas Legislature.
In this year’s legislative session, Texas State Rep. Matt Schaefer, a Republican from Tyler, authored H.B. 1441, a bill that would have raised the burden of proof police need to seize property.
“The state has the lowest possible burden to show why they should seize property,” Schaefer said in explaining the bill, “it’s by a preponderance of the evidence. So, if the evidence is just a little bit above the other side, then the state will win every time.”
“If they’re going to take someone’s property away, then they have to show their case with clear and convincing evidence,” Schaefer continued.
The bill passed the House with bipartisan support but never made it out of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee.
Texas House Speaker, Dade Phelan, responded to the Dallas PD’s photo with a caption asking Schafer to “saddle up” because “the House is going to pass civil asset forfeiture reform again.”
Rep. Carl Sherman, a Democrat from Dallas, was a co-author on the bill and echoed Schaefer’s same belief in an email interview with The Dallas Express.
“I believe police seizing assets should be consistent with how criminal asset forfeiture is done.” Sherman wrote. In criminal asset forfeiture, “police and district attorneys have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the properties seized had a direct connection with the crime they are accusing someone of committing.”
In response to the Dallas PD photo, Sherman said it was important not to be reactionary without having all the facts but that it was also important to recognize how civil asset forfeitures affect citizens across the state.
“It is a miscarriage of justice and personal liberty to have your property seized without due process granted by the U.S. Constitution,” Sherman wrote.
We will “continue to work with law enforcement on this issue to ensure they can still do their jobs while also preventing bad faith actors from abusing our current laws,” he continued.
Sherman also stated he has a “good feeling” that H.B 1441 or a similar bill can be fully passed in the next legislative session, citing Speaker Phelan’s show of support on social media.