A small town in Texas has had to suspend its participation in the Department of Justice's asset forfeiture program while the feds investigate an apparent misappropriation of funds.
Palmview, a suburb of McAllen near the Mexican border, is a small town of less than 6,000. It's hardly a major player in the forfeiture program: It received around $47,000 in 2017 by participating in the Justice Department's Equitable Sharing Program, which lets local cops team up with the feds for busts and then use the Department of Justice to seize and keep the assets and money of those they arrest. Cities and counties across Texas altogether received around $29 million total last year via the program
According to local news reports, a city audit found that the funds were being misappropriated and improperly spent. Asset forfeiture funds are supposed to be used to pay policing expenses, but they were being funneled elsewhere to fund other activities, such as trips for non–law enforcement personnel. Furthermore, the town's police chief (who has been fired) has been accused of getting an outside job with a private security company and using city resources (including asset forfeiture funds) to promote the company.
The city manager reported the improper behavior to the Justice Department, which is now doing its own investigation. The city may end up having to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars. The city manager believes the misallocation of asset forfeiture funding may have been happening for at least four years.
This probably seems like small potatoes when you compare it to the massive abuses of asset forfeiture programs that we've seen in other jurisdictions. But it reveals a certain mentality linked to civil forfeiture. In the news coverage of Palmview's problems, the city manager, Leo Olivares, describes what happened as "taking clean money and making it dirty." In other words, he thinks the asset forfeiture proceeds were totally legitimate; it's just shifting it elsewhere and using it for other purposes that's wrong.
But these proceeds are far from "clean." News coverage of Palmview's asset forfeiture program has generally taken it as a given that the money the city receives has been taken from convicted criminals. But that's not how civil asset forfeiture works, particularly the federal program. Because it's treated as a civil process, prosecutors and police can seize and keep people's money and other property without actually convicting them of a crime. This flips America's concepts of justice on its head by requiring citizens essentially to prove their property is innocent of any connection with criminal activities. And they have to pay for their own lawyers to represent them.
Furthermore, the system that Palmview violated is a system that contributes to the abusive application of asset forfeiture in the first place. When asset forfeiture revenue remains within police budgets, that creates a financial incentive for police to seize whatever they get their hands on and to turn every roadside stop into an accusation of drug trafficking, even when no drugs are present. The Institute for Justice, which fights civil asset forfeiture, calls it "policing for profit."
The Institute for Justice has given Texas a D+ for its forfeiture programs. Law enforcement agencies across the state rake in millions of dollars annually in asset forfeiture proceeds with little oversight and without having to actually convict people of crimes. Some Texas police departments have been sued for abusing the system, and some Texas lawmakers who actually have some respect for the Fourth Amendment have been trying to change the law to require convictions.
The Palmview city manager and the Justice Department may think it's how the money gets spent that determines whether the cash is clean or dirty. But what's really dirty is the system that allows them to snatch it in the first place.