Forfeiture Funds are Back as Equitable Sharing Program Gears Up in Dallas County and State of Texas
Back in March, the Department of Justice issued a news release that had to have been met with lots of joy in law enforcement offices all over the State of Texas: the “Equitable Sharing Program” was back, effective immediately!
Both the March 28, 2016 Letter Sent by the Department of Justice to State, Local, and Tribal Law Enforcement Agencies, and its accompanying Fact Sheet are available for downloading online.
History of Dallas County Asset Forfeiture
This had to be especially good news for Dallas County, since we’ve had such a problem with forfeiture assets being used in unexpected and unacceptable ways here – even for the feds. Former Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, if you’ll remember, got lots of bad press when it was revealed that the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office had been using forfeiture assets questionably and a federal audit was instituted.
That federal audit resulted in Dallas County having to refund $112,000 to the federal government’s forfeiture fund (most of that money being used to pay the bar dues of the prosecutors).
For more on Dallas County Asset Forfeiture, read our past posts including:
- The Forfeiture Epidemic: When the Government Just Takes Your Property and Keeps It
- Will Media Coverage Finally Stop Government From Grabbing Your Property in Forfeiture?
- Dallas D.A. Forfeiture Funds: The Temptation of All That Stuff and the Craig Watkins Scandal
- 2015 Update on Law of Asset Forfeitures: Federal and Texas – Are You Any Safer?
Today, Susan Hawk runs the shop, not Craig Watkins. So, she’ll be overseeing what happens now that the Equitable Sharing Program is back online. Under this federal program, millions and millions of dollars are distributed to state and local law enforcement as the federal government “equitably shares” forfeiture assets with the states and city / county / tribal law enforcement organizations.
There’s something for everyone, and it’s especially great for the state and local law enforcement because this happens via federal law and that’s much more flexible than, say, the State of Texas forfeiture system.
The Dance of Federal Equitable Sharing Laws
Now, they’ll argue that forfeiture has been around for decades. Sure, that’s true. Back in 1984, federal forfeiture laws were passed as part of the Drug War. The idea was that asset forfeiture would help combat organized crime with its money laundering schemes and drug trade.
Taking lots of valuable property from the bad guys seemed like a good idea back then.
Thing is, over time, law enforcement agencies have found this to be a very lucrative source of revenue for their own operations. There’s not much of a double-check on the police or prosecutors after the assets are taken, or “forfeited.” And under this Equitable Sharing Program, it’s even better.
Under Equitable Sharing, the local police seize property under state forfeiture laws, and then transfer it to the federal authorities under federal law. Once it’s turned over to the federal government, the feds turn around and pay as much as 80% of the value of that property back to the locals.
This can be paid even if state laws do not allow the police or prosecutor to keep forfeiture property or proceeds.
Last December, there was bad news for all the police and prosecutors that liked to dance this dance with the federal government. Equitable Sharing came to an end because Congress stopped it in the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act and the 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act.
You can only imagine the phone calls and emails and media strategies that began back in December, as police and prosecutors around the country began crying out for a return of those forfeiture funds — they needed those equitable sharing payments! To fight crime!
And so here we are, with things back like they once were. The Equitable Sharing Program is back!
Nevermind that a substantial percentage of state and local law enforcement is being financed not by tax dollars but by SEIZING PROPERTY WITHOUT DUE PROCESS.
How Powerful is the Temptation to Grab Property By the Police? Very.
The Washington Post exposed how bad this system truly is and how easy it is for police to fall prey to the temptation to take stuff. Read, “Stop And Seize: Aggressive Police Take Hundreds Of Millions Of Dollars From Motorists Not Charged With Crimes,” written by Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow Jr., Steven Rich, and Gabe Silverman and published in September 2014.
As part of that piece, there is a reference to a self-published book authored by a Illinois law enforcement officer who advises that law enforcement would be well-served by “turning our police forces into present-day Robin Hoods.”
According to the Washington Post expose, there are those in the state and local law enforcement communities who not only think forfeiture is a good thing, they compete amongst themselves for who can get the most stuff.
Think that’s not happening here in Texas?
Read the April 21, 2016 piece in the Dallas Morning News written by Audrey Redford, a Doctoral Fellow at the Free Market Institute of Texas Tech University, “How Police Can Seize Your Property Without A Trial.”
Here, it’s predicted that forfeiture abuse in Texas is just going to get worse now that the Justice Department has re-upped the Equitable Sharing Program.
What could be done? Dr. Redford gives examples:
1. Florida passed a law that requires criminal charges be filed before police can seize property. What a concept.
2. Montana and New Mexico now have laws that require a criminal CONVICTION before assets can be taken. Wow.
3. And New Mexico goes one better: there’s no longer an incentive there for police to seize stuff because all forfeiture funds go into the state’s general fund, not into law enforcement pockets. Why wasn’t this the way things were done from the get-go?
But that’s not the state of things today in Dallas, or elsewhere in the Lone Star State. Right now, anywhere in the State of Texas, there’s a real and present danger of your assets being taken by the authorities without you being charged or convicted of a crime. The sad truth is that you still need to be ready to defend yourself after it’s happened.
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