It appears that President Donald Trump has officially taken a position on civil asset forfeiture. This week, the president offered to help “destroy” the career of a Texas state senator who was supporting reform with the state’s asset forfeiture laws (he later claimed that he was joking.)
Joke or not, the threat came during an exchange with Rockwall County Sheriff Harold Eavenson, who told the president: “We’ve got a state senator in Texas that was talking about introducing legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money.” Eavenson went on to say that the Mexican cartels would “build a monument to [the unnamed senator] in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”
The particular bill Eavenson was referring to is co-sponsored by state Sens. Konni Burton, R-Fort Worth, and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, with the goal to reform civil asset forfeiture in Texas. The two senators championed this reform effort because of the inherent injustices associated with the asset-forfeiture process.
Because such seizures are civil, a victim of forfeiture does not have access to appointed counsel and the standard of proof is typically “preponderance of the evidence,” much lower than the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Maybe most egregious, the practice has encouraged a policing-for-profit mentality where officers pursue much-needed funds via the forfeiture mechanism, rather than acting as administers of peace—protecting and serving. This mentality has increased the tension between the police and the policed.
A pillar of President Trump’s campaign (and now his presidency) has been the populist defense of “the little guy.” It is mind-boggling that he would defend a practice that targets his base. The rich elite can afford lawyers, but the little guy cannot.
The Supreme Court has performed legal somersaults defending forfeiture without charge or conviction. Thus, federal courts continue to hear cases with titles like United States v. Articles Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes More or Less, Each Containing One Part of Clacker Balls.
But the legislation in question here is a state bill. Federalism, according to the GOP’s official platform, is “the foundation of personal liberty.” The platform goes on to say:
Federalism is a cornerstone of our constitutional system. Every violation of state sovereignty by federal officials is not merely a transgression of one unit of government against another; it is an assault on the liberties of individual Americans.
It seems reasonable, then, that the state of Texas should decide what is right for the state of Texas, without interference or threats from the federal executive. The notion that the president would use his bully pulpit to “destroy” duly elected state senators because a sheriff with a shiny star on his chest bitched about having his toys taken away is a Nixonesque abuse of power.
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