Explainer: Fort Worth police receive big bucks for civil asset forfeitures
After a city audit revealed money in the Fort Worth Police Department’s civil asset forfeiture fund earmarked for the city, the department has started transferring funds through City Council.
The most recent transfer in mid-March drew criticism from District 9 councilmember Elizabeth Beck, who questioned the ethics of accepting money seized from potentially innocent residents.
“Our civil asset forfeiture laws are broken,” Beck said.
The Fort Worth Report talked to experts to answer commonly asked questions about the process of civil asset forfeiture, how it operates in Fort Worth, and why the practice is controversial.
What is civil asset forfeiture?
Civil asset forfeiture is a process used by law enforcement to gain money and property they think is related to criminal activity. Police seize belongings from individuals, and then prosecutors file suit in order to retain ownership of the property.
People do not have to be charged with a crime for their assets to be seized through this process. They must prove the property was not linked to a crime, even if they have not been arrested or charged for said crime. This differs from the standard for criminal asset forfeiture, which requires law enforcement to prove property was involved in or earned through criminal activity.
“You’re punishing people for a crime they’ve never been convicted of committing,” Dan Alban, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, said. “And because law enforcement can keep up to 100% of these forfeitures, there are very strong incentives to pursue asset forfeiture.”
Police argue that the practice is an essential tool to crack down on organized crime. Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, said the lower standard allows police to hit criminals in their pocketbooks even if they can’t place them behind bars.
“Civil asset forfeiture is intended to try and take a bite out of organized criminal syndicates by getting at their profit margin,” he said. “If we do away with civil asset forfeiture, who really benefits the most? It’s organized crime.”
The Fort Worth Police Department has four routes to seize assets — joint Department of Justice investigations, joint Department of Treasury investigations, and county and city investigations (grouped as state investigations in the department’s budgetary breakdown). Money from federal joint investigations is split among the participating agencies.
Tarrant County-based attorney David Sloane most frequently sees civil asset forfeiture through highway interdiction cases, where officers will stop motorists and look for reasons to search their vehicle, he said. Sloane is paranoid about making sure he has a series of official documents if he’s ever traveling with cash, for that reason, he said.
“It’s my money, but you know, again, I cover my bases as best I can,” he said. “Is that going to stop an officer from taking it still if he wants to? I mean, he can still do it. And I still have to go fight to get it back.”
How common is the practice in Texas?
Police departments across the state frequently use civil asset forfeiture. The practice has come under scrutiny at both the state and federal level over the years; critics say it targets primarily low-income individuals and unfairly steals citizens’ property.
Lawrence said while people often think of civil asset forfeiture as a ‘get rich quick scheme’ for police, in reality there are built-in checks and balances.
“In order for it to actually be inappropriate or improper, the district court judge has to be just as involved as anybody else,” he said. “And if that is the case, we have the board of judicial review.”
Departments report civil asset forfeitures to the state attorney general’s office, which tracks totals annually.
Several other states have passed legislation aimed at reforming the practice in recent years. Last year, Maine abolished civil asset forfeiture entirely. It is the fourth state to do so, joining Nebraska, New Mexico and North Carolina.
In Texas, State Rep. Matt Schaefer (R–Tyler) has filed several House bills over the years aimed at placing the burden of proof on the state rather than the accused whose property has been seized. None of the bills have been signed into law.
“It’s free money. It’s free cars, it’s free guns,” Sloane said. “You know, it’s anything they see can be converted to law enforcement use.”
While he is not supportive of doing away with civil asset forfeiture, Lawrence said there should be additional oversight of constitutionally elected law enforcement officers, including district attorneys.
“I think (misuse of the process) is probably more prevalent at the county level because there is not that accountability to the voter, directly to the voter, like there is for cities,” he said.
How much money does the Fort Worth Police Department gain from civil asset forfeiture yearly?
In 2021, the department generated $856,876 in revenue. The majority of that money came from joint DOJ investigations. In 2020 and 2019, the majority of the revenue came from county and city investigations.
Data from 2001 to 2013 showed that Texas as a whole collected an average of $41.6 million in civil asset forfeiture funds annually.
While people can contest forfeiture proceedings, Alban said it doesn’t always make financial sense. Because civil asset forfeiture is handled through a civil court, the accused are not provided a free court-appointed attorney. If someone had $500 seized, for example, lawyer fees to contest the seizure would likely be higher than the amount lost in the first place.
“Many people don’t have the means to contest it,” Alban said. As a result, many cases are closed through a default judgment.
“I’ve always taken these cases on a contingency basis, like ‘I’ll split the recovery with you or I’ll take a percentage of the recovery that I get back,” Sloane said. “If I get nothing back for you, then you don’t you owe me nothing.’”
The police department said property it seizes is often abandoned as officers pursue further investigation, as a way for owners to reduce their criminal liability.
Where does that money go?
Money from civil asset forfeiture is generally split between the arresting department, the local prosecutor’s office, and the state. On the federal level, the department must apply for a share of the revenue.
In Fort Worth, the police department submits a proposed asset forfeiture budget for council approval. This year’s budget included 16 expenditure categories, including $61,250 to match a Texas Department of Transportation grant.
In a statement, the Fort Worth Police Department told The Fort Worth Report that “while some must be destroyed, property that has legitimate financial value is used to purchase equipment and technology. These resources help the Department with the expensive task of keeping pace with evolving crime strategies and technology with the ultimate goal of reducing the financial burden of policing to the taxpayer.”
Beck would like to see the city reinvest the money into communities it was taken from, either in the form of drug and gun violence prevention efforts or other community services, she said.
“I think that making that statement, that we’re giving this back to the people, that it hurt, is a way forward,” she said.