Texas police made more than $50 million in 2017 by seizing people’s property

Texas police made more than $50 million in 2017 by seizing people’s property
Texas Police Department
Texas Police Department

This story is part of a collaborative reporting initiative supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. All stories can be found here: https://taken.pulitzercenter.org.

In February 2016, prosecutors in Houston filed a lawsuit against a truck: State of Texas vs. One 2003 Chevrolet Silverado.

Houston police had seized the vehicle after surveilling its driver, Macario Hernandez, and pulling him over after he left his house. They took the truck to court, hoping to keep it or sell it at auction to fund their operations, claiming the vehicle was known to be involved in the drug trade.

But the truck’s owner, Oralia Rodriguez, was never charged with a crime. She wasn’t at the scene when officers pulled over Hernandez, her son, and found 13.5 grams of marijuana in his pocket. In fact, Rodriguez said she had recently loaned him the car so he could drive his pregnant girlfriend to the doctor. The girlfriend was having difficulty with her pregnancy and was at risk of losing the baby, Rodriguez said. She was desperate not to lose her truck, which had recently had new tires installed among other repairs, which she was still working to pay off.

“My sole intention was to help out. … Now I am in this situation of losing what I have worked very hard for,” she wrote to local prosecutors. “I am begging you please allow me to have my truck back.”

Seven weeks after police pulled over the truck, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office resolved the suit and agreed to release the vehicle back to Rodriguez, on the condition that she never loan it to Hernandez. But Rodriguez still had to pay $1,600 to get her truck back, plus any towing and storage fees it had accumulated over the course of the lawsuit. (Hernandez pleaded guilty to delivering drugs and spent several months in jail.)

What happened to Rodriguez was perfectly legal. Under a process known as civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement can take cash and property they believe to be related to criminal activity, even if the person involved is never charged with a crime. Prosecutors then file suit against the property, and if successful, police may keep much of it for their own purposes.

Civil asset forfeiture is a tool supported by law enforcement leaders, who say it is necessary for fighting crime, but panned by both liberals and conservatives who see it as a violation of Americans’ civil liberties and sometimes refer to it as “policing for profit.” It’s a longstanding, nationwide practice that has regained steam under the Trump administration but faces constitutional challenges in court.

When police seize a person’s property, the onus falls on the owner to prove the property was “innocent,” or not linked to a crime. If a person doesn’t fight the seizure in court — which is what happens in the majority of cases — they lose their property automatically. Many cases involve property worth no more than a few thousand dollars, and attorneys’ fees can end up being more costly than the value of the property itself.

Last year alone, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors throughout Texas grew their coffers more than $50 million by seizing cash, cars, jewelry, clothing, art and other property they claimed were linked to a crime. That includes property seized under both criminal forfeiture — which requires someone to first be found guilty of a crime — and civil forfeiture, which allows the state to sue the property itself and doesn’t require a criminal charge. The Texas Attorney General’s Office, which tracks these figures, does not distinguish between the two.

How much property and money was seized from people, like Rodriguez, who weren’t charged with any crime? That information isn’t collected in any meaningful way in Texas, and state lawmakers, at the urging of prosecutors and law enforcement, have resisted attempts to report more detailed information about asset forfeiture to the public.

“One wonders if our colonial ancestors, transported to 2014, would be astonished — watching government seize, then sell, the property of guiltless citizens who have not been charged with any crime, much less convicted of one,” former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, a Republican who has since been promoted to a federal appeals court by President Donald Trump, wrote in 2014. “A generation ago in America, asset forfeiture was limited to wresting ill-gotten gains from violent criminals. Today, it has a distinctive ‘Alice in Wonderland’ flavor, victimizing innocent citizens who’ve done nothing wrong.”

Extreme cases of abuse have occasionally grabbed the attention of the public and of lawmakers, who in 2011 made a rare move to rein in police seizures. That followed a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union a few years before, which alleged that police in the tiny East Texas town of Tenaha were conducting “highway robbery” by shaking down drivers — primarily people of color — for cash under threat of jail time. The suit accused law enforcement in Tenaha of threatening to have children removed from their families if the drivers they’d stopped on U.S. Highway 59 didn’t sign waivers allowing officers to seize their property without a court proceeding.

From 2006 to 2008, officers in Tenaha seized approximately $3 million from at least 140 people, according to the lawsuit, which was ultimately settled with local law enforcement not admitting to wrongdoing. With the lawsuit in the news, Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 signed legislation prohibiting the use of such waivers, forcing all forfeitures to go through court.


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