State and local law enforcement agencies bring in about $50 million per year through state asset forfeiture laws, but there is little data on how this powerful tool is used in Texas. Agencies must report overall profits from seizures, but law enforcement officials have successfully fought proposals that would require them to release data on how much is taken in individual seizures, and how often they are tied to a criminal charge. The Texas Tribune pored over thousands of pages of court records to shine a light on how asset forfeiture is used by law enforcement in four Texas counties. The Tribune studied 560 forfeiture cases from 2016, resulting in the seizure of nearly $10 million and 100 vehicles. The cash seizures were as small as $290 and as large as $1.2 million.
Half the cash seizures were for under $3,000. About two of five forfeiture cases started with a traffic stop. Many cases were connected to small amounts of drugs. One woman’s 2003 Chevrolet Trailblazer was seized after police found half a gram of suspected methamphetamine and a partially-smoked blunt in the car. In nearly 60 percent of cases, people didn’t fight their seizures in court, resulting in judges turning over property to local governments by default. Two of every 10 cases didn’t result in a criminal charge against the property owner. In about 40 percent of cases, no one who had property taken from them was found guilty of a crime connected to the seizure. Seizures have been slammed by property rights advocates and critics across the political spectrum, who say civil asset forfeiture gives too much power to police and provides a strong financial incentive for them to take money and valuables. Police and prosecutors argue the practice is a necessary tool to combat criminal organizations like drug cartels by hitting them where it hurts, in their profits.