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A Firestorm Over Civil Assets Forfeiture

The+results+of+a+civil+assets+forfeiture.
The results of a civil assets forfeiture.

The results of a civil assets forfeiture.

The results of a civil assets forfeiture.

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Three months left to go, and the 85th Texas State Legislative Session has already proven to be an especially heated one. Passionate battles over transgender bathroom rights, the explicit ban of sanctuary cities, and (of course) more gun law reforms have all sparked their share of fierce debates, but another issue entered the legislative limelight two weeks ago – the seizure of money or property by law enforcement from alleged drug traffickers without first securing a conviction.

The issue of civil asset forfeiture reform went from being a sideline issue to a crusade for some lawmakers after a Feb. 7 meeting at the White House between a delegation from the National Sheriffs’ Association and President Donald J. Trump. A meeting in which a brief exchange between Rockwall County Sheriff Harold Eavenson and President Trump went thusly:

“There’s a state senator in Texas that was talking about legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money,” Eavenson said to the president.

Trump then muttered, “Can you believe that?”

“And I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed,” Eavenson continued.

To which Trump offered with a grin, “Who is the state senator? Do you want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career.”

At the moment President Trump asked for the senator in question’s name, Eavenson simply shrugged and smiled back, and in interviews since then (with a number of media organizations) has refused to specify to whom he was referring. It did, however, draw the ire of one Texas state senator in particular, Konni Burton, a Tea Party-backed Republican representing District 10 (Colleyville/Tarrant County).

When the President of the United States threatens any member of the Texas Senate, it must be considered a threat to all Texas Senators, as well as a threat to the civility and decorum that are essential to a functioning democracy”

— Texas Senate Democrat Resolution

“While I certainly want law enforcement to have the tools necessary to combat large criminal enterprises, we must be vigilant to safeguard the rights of everyday citizens from potential abuse,” she posted in a statement on her website. “Property rights are one of the foundational rights in any free society and the taking of property by government is no small matter. Requiring the government to secure a criminal conviction before permanently taking property from citizens is simply commonsense.

“We would not stand for anything less when it comes to our personal liberty or freedom; why should we allow our property to be taken so easily?” Burton continued. “We should not diminish the constitutional protections guaranteed for all in the 4th and 5th Amendments to more easily punish criminals. On the contrary, we should defend these protections more fiercely than ever so they are strong for future generations.”

In addition to members of both houses and both parties of the state legislature being strongly in favor of reforming or abolishing asset seizure to protect the rights of citizens entangled (but not yet convicted) in the criminal justice system, some lawmakers made sure to reprimand President Trump for “threatening” an elected official.

“When the President of the United States threatens any member of the Texas Senate, it must be considered a threat to all Texas Senators, as well as a threat to the civility and decorum that are essential to a functioning democracy,” a resolution circulated by Texas Senate Democrats scolded, concluding with “Therefore, be it resolved, that the 85th Legislature of the State of Texas hereby encourage the President of the United States to refrain from threatening elected officials.”

In response to the uproar over the president’s off-the-cuff response to his concerns, Sheriff Eavenson told the Herald-Banner, “It was not meant to be personal,” and assured the Dallas Morning News that he is “not into assassinating his [the unnamed senator’s] character,” and that he believed Trump was simply, “being empathetic that he did not agree with the senator’s position.”

As for his stance on the issue of civil asset forfeiture, Eavenson argues that requiring convictions before seizing property could weaken a powerful weapon that law enforcement can use against organized crime and drug cartels.

“My objective was to make a point of the lack of logic to such a position,” he said on the Rockwall County Sheriffs Office Facebook page. “It was also to make the point public to possibly benefit law enforcement. My personal opinion is that such a bill if it were to pass would benefit the cartels and damage law enforcement.”

Eavenson further defended his position by asserting that the state senator he had in mind was misinformed.

“Some people sold him a bill of goods about the fact that just regular citizens are getting stopped, getting their money seized,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “I’m not saying that has never happened, but I promise you it is in the minuscule minority.”

Meanwhile, Texas State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of District 20 (Brooks, Jim Wells, Nueces and Hidalgo Counties), who co-authored Senate Bill 380 with Burton, doesn’t believe that he was the target of Eavenson’s comment, and that he isn’t particularly worried about what Trump may or may not do.

“I don’t know the sheriff,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t pay much attention to what Trump says anymore.”

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A Firestorm Over Civil Assets Forfeiture