Texas officials are wrestling over where to draw the line between effective law enforcement and property rights.
At issue is the practice of civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement seizes property — usually money or vehicles — believed to be tied to a crime. The issue, which has been simmering for several legislative sessions, has been bolstered recently by attention in the state Republican Party's platform and a joke from President Donald Trump.
Opponents of the practice have two main criticisms: People lose their property even though they haven't been convicted of a crime, and it has the potential to harm families that depend on, for example, that one family car that's now considered contraband. But law enforcement officials call it one of their most important tools for stopping crime — especially when dealing with drug-trafficking operations.
Senate Bill 380, filed this legislative session by state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, would require a criminal conviction before most property can be seized by law enforcement and would make homestead property, cars worth less than $10,000 and cash totaling less than $200 exempt from forfeiture.
Burton said she was motivated to file the bill after discussions in her district.
"There's somewhat a national conversation as well about this practice," she said in an interview with the Tribune. "I have seen other states are reforming civil asset forfeiture as well, and so I was paying attention on the surface level and then hearing about it in the district and immediately knew this was something we needed to reform."
Twelve other states require a conviction for most forfeitures, according to the Institute for Justice. No bill has been introduced that would end the practice altogether, but that has not quelled concerns from the law enforcement community.
Being able to seize assets deemed contraband allows law enforcement agencies to fight drug cartels, said Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback, legislative director for the Sheriffs' Association of Texas.
"Asset forfeiture is one of the most effective tools battling international drug-trafficking organizations in the United States," Louderback said. "It's the most effective tool we have in our arsenal. And we're opposed to doing away with asset forfeiture."
Louderback said asset forfeiture is a more deliberate process than its detractors make it out to be.
"It's not one and done in one day," he said. "There are many factors at work here. And the vetting, so to speak, of each individual case is thorough."
"It goes to court," he said. "There's a lot of transparency present."
He added that if lawmakers want to increase reporting requirements, the association is "open to improvements, but we have to keep the ability to seize assets because it's our No. 1 tool to combat drug-trafficking organizations."
But Greg Glod, senior policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said there is no data that shows that seizing assets has put a huge dent in drug cartel operations.
"If you look at how much money has actually been forfeited, it seems like a lot, but when you average cash that's forfeited, it's generally from $0 to $5,000," he said. "And overall, it's only in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and we know how much drug cartel money actually comes through here. So it really has not, from those statistics, done a lot to actually disrupt cartel members and their drug-trafficking organizations."
A lot of money could be on the line, too. District attorneys across the state in 2016 were in court fighting for more than $55 million in seized cash to be forfeited to the state, according to reports counties submitted to the Attorney General's office. Law enforcement agencies generally use forfeited dollars for training, Louderback said.
At the end of 2016, district attorneys statewide had a total balance of more than $36 million in forfeited money, according to reports counties submitted to the Attorney General's office. State law allows the district attorneys' offices to use those funds. No legislation under consideration addresses what would happen to funds already forfeited.
Burton said Thursday she didn't have a position on what should happen to those dollars, saying her legislation only looks forward.
Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.