Two local TV news outlets, WFAA and CBS11, picked up a story this week that was first reported on the Dallas Police Department’s Facebook page. On the surface, it reads like a feel-good story: On December 2, an adorable K9 named Ballentine identified a piece of carry-on luggage at Dallas Love Field Airport that contained $100,000 in cash. Police seized the money and posted a photo of the dog with stacks of cash laid out on a table. Good boy. Case closed. But not so fast.
According to the reports, the money belonged to a 25-year-old woman from Chicago, who was neither arrested nor charged with a crime after her luggage was seized by police. So why did the police take the money? Well, according to Texas law, police don’t need a reason to take your property so long as they believe it either has been part of a crime or they believe it will be involved in a crime. That grants law enforcement sweeping powers to basically seize any property they believe is suspicious, even if they don’t have much evidence. The fact that the K9 identified the bag is, in and of itself, not evidence; 90 percent of cash in circulation has been shown to have trace amounts of cocaine.
Texas’ generous civil forfeiture laws permit police to seize personal property with only a preponderance of evidence (i.e. a 50 percent threshold of likelihood). Was it unusual that a 25-year-old woman was carrying a bag in the airport that contained only a few blankets and $100,000 in cash? Sure. Could police convince a judge that there is a 50-50 chance that someone carrying 100K in cash around in an airport may be involved in some sort of criminal activity? Probably. But that isn’t the point here. Civil forfeiture laws allow law enforcement to seize property without due process. Police may not have had enough evidence to arrest the woman or charge her with a crime, but they could still take her money. And they did. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies in Texas are entitled to keep upwards of 90 percent of the property they seize, regardless of whether it is ever found to be connected to a crime.
As the ACLU has pointed out, “aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting.”
Texas cops make a ton of money thanks to civil forfeiture. Between 2003 and 2012, Texas law enforcement seized $486 million worth of property. They made $50 million in 2017 alone. Federal agencies also profit. Last year, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas bragged about claiming $70 million in forfeiture actions. There is no doubt that much of this property came from people who were legitimately charged or convicted of crimes. But that doesn’t change the fact the law creates an incentive for police to take cash from people by simply claiming suspicion.
Back in 2014, HBO funnyman John Oliver attempted to shine the national spotlight on the issue. He pointed out that many people who have had their property wrongfully seized by police cannot afford to fight the legal battle required to win it back. There have also been instances when police ask drivers during routine traffic stops if they are carrying cash, and if they are, they seize the cash. Oliver cites a Washington Post report that found that, between 2001 and 2014, $60 billion in cash had been seized by law enforcement departments from people who were never charged with crimes.
Not much has changed since then. A quick review shows that there have been attempts in nearly every legislative session since 2014 to change Texas’ civil forfeiture laws. These efforts never get anywhere. In the last legislative session, a bill that would have tightened some restrictions around civil forfeiture—including making law enforcement show “clear and convincing” evidence for seizure, as opposed only a preponderance of evidence—never made it out of committee.
Which is not surprising. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers support some form of civil forfeiture reform. For Democrats, it is a criminal justice issue. For Republicans, these laws represent an abuse of personal liberty. But whenever the issue of civil forfeiture comes up in a legislative session, law enforcement—as well as local governments—push back. In 2017, when the issue of civil forfeiture came up once again in the Texas Legislature, Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), told the Texas Observer: “I would be surprised if you didn’t hear from mayors and city managers and other officials who have to deal with budget issues.”
What Wilkison admits here is that many local governments see civil forfeiture as a way to pad their bottom line. That is frightening. Sure, we may find out that the 25-year-old woman who was carrying $100,000 in cash was indeed on her way to make some sort of large drug deal. But that doesn’t matter. Regardless of her intent, laws in Texas are written in such a way that local governments have an incentive to seize money without any solid evidence. In other words, if you were flying through Love Field with any amount of cash for any reason, and Ballentine’s ears perked up, police could legally take your money.
Most of these laws date back to the Reagan administration and the 1980s-era War on Drugs. Like so many idiotic and abusive laws that were enacted during the failed War on Drugs, civil forfeiture laws need to change. That’s going to require courage from state lawmakers to stand up to the law enforcement lobby. But it will also require local elected officials to quit tacitly opposing reform and to tell the law enforcement agencies that report to them (at least in theory) to stand down.
*As you know from reading this post, they didn’t technically steal the money since they are legally allowed to take it.