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How Texas police use asset forfeiture across the state

In January 2016, Houston police took $955 from a man they said was a gang member with a criminal history because they suspected he was selling painkillers that were found in his car during a traffic stop. When prosecutors discovered he had a valid prescription for the drugs, they dropped the possession charge.

But the man’s money still went into the coffers of the police department and the local prosecutor.

A few months later near the U.S.-Mexico border, a Webb County sheriff’s deputy pulled over a southbound car that Border Patrol agents had flagged for having hidden compartments. There was nothing in the compartments, but because deputies suspected it was tied to drug trafficking, they still seized the 2007 Nissan Altima. The driver wasn’t charged with a crime.

The seizures highlight the controversial but complicated nature of a common policing practice called civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement agencies can take and keep a person’s cash and property without charging the person with a crime. Instead, the government sues the property itself in civil court — where property owners have no right to a court-appointed lawyer — leading to oddly-named lawsuits like The State of Texas v. one 2005 Ford Mustang.

Little transparency

State and local law enforcement agencies bring in about $50 million per year through state asset forfeiture laws, but there is little data on how this powerful tool is used in Texas. Agencies and prosecutors must report their overall profits from seizures to the state, but law enforcement officials have successfully fought legislative proposals that would require them to release data on how much is taken in individual seizures, and how often they are tied to a criminal charge.

The Texas Tribune pored over thousands of pages of court records to shine a light on how asset forfeiture is used by law enforcement agencies in four Texas counties: Harris County, the state’s most populous and home to Houston; Smith County in East Texas; Reeves County in West Texas, which seized hundreds of thousands of dollars of suspected drug money hidden in cars being hauled by tractor-trailers; and Webb County on the border, where many seizures came from traffic stops on the southbound lanes of Interstate 35 heading toward Mexico.

The Tribune studied 560 forfeiture cases filed in 2016, resulting in the seizure of nearly $10 million and 100 vehicles (the investigation doesn’t include federally-prosecuted seizures, and the Tribune chose cases from 2016 in order to capture their final outcomes). The study included six months of cases from Harris County, and all 2016 seizures in the other counties.

The cash seizures were as small as $290 and as large as $1.2 million, and police took vehicles ranging from a 1982 Chevrolet truck to a 2011 Cadillac Escalade. They also seized property like Rolex watches, gold chains, and a 60-inch television.

The Tribune’s analysis also found:

■ Half of the cash seizures were for less than $3,000. In Harris and Smith counties, more than two-thirds were under $5,000.

■ About two of every five forfeiture cases started with a traffic stop.

■ Many cases were connected to possession of small amounts of drugs. In Smith County, a woman’s 2003 Chevrolet Trailblazer was seized after police found half of a gram of suspected methamphetamine and a partially-smoked blunt in the car.

■ In nearly 60 percent of the cases, people didn’t fight their seizures in court at all, resulting in judges turning over the property to local governments by default.

■ Two of every 10 cases didn’t result in a related criminal charge against the property owner or possessor; in Webb County, more than half didn’t.

■ And in about 40 percent of the cases, no one who had property taken from them was found guilty of a crime connected to the seizure.

These police seizures have been slammed by property rights advocates and critics across the political spectrum, who say civil asset forfeiture gives too much power to police and provides a strong financial incentive for them to take money and valuables. But it’s also fiercely defended by police and prosecutors, who argue the practice is a necessary tool to combat criminal organizations like drug cartels by hitting them where it hurts — in their profits.

Taking property without a criminal conviction is a violation of the owners’ civil liberties, said Arif Panju, an attorney with the libertarian Institute for Justice.

‘Constitutional problems’

“There is a principle of being innocent until proven guilty, and forfeiture just takes that and flips it on its head,” he said. “That raises all sorts of constitutional problems.”

In February, the group won a U.S. Supreme Court case that limits forfeitures in state cases where the value of what is seized outweighs the seriousness of the connected crime.

And more and more states, like Michigan and Arkansas, have recently adopted legislation to require a criminal conviction for most forfeitures. The Democratic and Republican party platforms in Texas last year called for law enforcement to secure a criminal conviction in order to keep seized assets.

But law enforcement has stymied such proposals at the Texas Capitol for years, arguing that criminal cases can be dismissed for reasons that have nothing to do with guilt — like a defendant agreeing to plead guilty in one case if prosecutors drop another one. Prosecutors have also told lawmakers that it’s not always possible — or in the interest of justice — to file criminal charges in forfeitures.

They point to cases like those in Reeves County — where they say seized cash is clearly tied to criminal activity but the truck drivers are unknowingly transporting it.

“Civil asset forfeiture is a necessity for us on these drug corridors for us to be able to operate,” Jackson County Sheriff A.J. Louderback, speaking on behalf of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, said at the state’s sole legislative hearing on changing forfeiture laws this year. “It’s the single most effective tool that we have to fight the cartels in the state of Texas.”

Not as portrayed

Opponents counter that in such cases, there are other legal mechanisms for police to seize and keep the cash since the drivers are not claiming it. Seventeen states now require criminal convictions in most forfeiture cases, they argue, and Texas could do the same.

“We hear the police and prosecutors say that these are vital tools, yet states across the country are figuring out a way to both obviously combat crime and criminal activity and respect the property rights, and the civil liberties and the due process rights of citizens,” Chris Harris, a data and policy analyst with the advocacy group Just Liberty, said at the legislative hearing in April.

Critics also said that the low dollar amount of most seizures the Tribune reviewed undercuts a standard law enforcement argument: Forfeiture is mainly used to target high-level criminal organizations.

“One of the things that I think that the district attorney’s office would have people think is that all of these cases involve big drug kingpins,” said Jennifer Gaut, a lawyer who represented several people in the Tribune’s sample and now works for the Harris County Public Defender’s Office. “The majority of cases are small dollar amounts and that’s … not the message they try to convey.

But Angela Beavers, the lead civil forfeiture prosecutor for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said smaller seizures are common when police bust street dealers, who are an integral cog in drug trafficking organizations.

“Why would we allow the street level dealers to profit from their crimes? These are the dealers that ruin communities and families,” she said in an email.

In the face of a growing effort to change Texas forfeiture laws, police and prosecutors have pointed to the positive effects seized money can have in their communities, such as providing body armor for police and buying drugs that can reverse overdoses.

“We understand that asset forfeiture is getting a negative light, but there are very good things that come from [it],” said Smith County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Wilson, who prosecutes civil forfeiture cases. “You don’t want drug dealers profiting and continuing to use these means to sell illicit drugs.”

Rusk County Commissioner Hale announces retirement at term's end, wrapping up decades in office

HENDERSON — Bill Hale’s life was going along just fine in 1996 when something unexpected rolled up while he was working on a fence beside the road.

A descendant of settlers who arrived in Rusk County in 1856, the son of Louis and Jeanne had returned home in 1980 after working on ranches in Northeast Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma for Premier Beef Cattle Co.

Home again, the Kilgore High School and Texas A&M University alum was working the 200-plus acre Texas Century Ranch in partnership with his father. He was raising a son and daughter with his wife, Rebecca.

In 1996, though, his fence-building and life as a rancher were interrupted, Hale recalled last week after he and the rest of the Rusk County Commissioners Court adjourned a regular meeting.

That day in ‘96, a friend of his dad’s, then-Commissioner Talmadge Shoultz Mercer, pulled off the road to chat. They swapped some small talk before Hale asked if the commissioner had a deeper reason for pulling over.

“He said ‘Yeah, I did. I want to talk to you about running for county commissioner.’ I said, ‘What?’ “ Hale said. “So, then, I talked to a lot of friends in Kilgore and found out I had a lot of support.”

Six terms later

He ran for the Pct. 1 post and won the job. After contests in the Republican primary and general election that year, Hale never faced another opponent.

He’ll retire at the end of his sixth term, which runs through 2020.

“I was the first Republican elected to the Commissioners Court since Reconstruction,” Hale said.

By the time the next Pct. 1 commissioner is sworn in — Hale said two “good friends of mine” and his son, Will, are lining up for the 2020 race — he will have served two dozen years in a position he’d never pondered until the previous six-term commissioner for northern Rusk County pulled off the road to chat.

“Probably one of the highlights would be meeting so many people, not only in my precinct but all over the county, Rusk County, as well as our county officials and officials from all over the state of Texas,” he said.”They’re all good people.”

Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Helton said Hale has been “an inspiration” to his 19-year law enforcement career in Rusk County.

“I always looked up to Commissioner Hale,” Helton said. “If Commissioner Hale tells you something, you can take it to the bank. I hate to see him leaving; it’s a good thing I’ve got his phone number in my speed-dial.”

Helton’s boss, Sheriff Jeff Price, had not heard Helton’s words when he said much the same thing about the commissioner.

“I’m really going to miss Bill, because he’s been the one with the most experience that the others looked to for guidance,” the sheriff said. “From all the other sheriffs that I’ve talked to from all around the state, I hear horror stories of the sheriffs and commissioners having battles and all-out wars. And I’ll be scratching my head, going, ‘What are y’all talking about?’ ”

Hale says that’s how it’s supposed to be.

“We are a courthouse family,” he said. “That’s what I tell new commissioners coming in.”

Other highlights

Hale has rebuilt every bridge in his precinct but one, and that project is scheduled for summer 2020.

“I’ve got a very, very good crew,” he said. “And they make me look good out in the precinct. They do good work. We respond very quickly to all the calls we get.”

Rusk County absorbed a closed grocery store across West Charlevoix Street from the courthouse about two decades ago, converting it into a new sheriff’s office, jail and courtroom.

“One of my main things I worked to get accomplished is to get a courtroom in that jail, to quit moving inmates across the street (to the courthouse),” Hale said.

The Commissioners Court also ordered the terminal at the Rusk County Airport rebuilt during Hale’s tenure. The airport also is responsible for financing the rebuilding of the Rusk County Youth Exposition Center, which is on the same property.

A tornado tore up the expo center, on Memorial Day in 2015, but the court rebuilt it bigger and better — without spending tax money, thanks to insurance and mineral royalties from drilling at the airport.

“We totally rebuilt that expo center without it costing taxpayers anything,” he said, explaining the use of county royalties was allowed because the two facilities are on the same piece of land.

The project enlarged the Tommy McDaniel Exhibit Hall and added an open-air pavilion between the exhibit hall and the Phillip Davis Memorial Arena.

Part of the project included placement of a sliding door so students can bring bulky shop projects straight through the hall without making a sharp turn that Hale always feared would make heavy items spill onto unsuspecting spectators.

“That just looked like a death trap to me,” he said. “It’s a lot less dangerous.”

Hale has other improvements in mind.

Work still to do

“I want to put some new LED lighting in the arena before I leave,” he said, later pointing east beyond the expo center to a pasture leading to the horse barn. “We’re going to build another arena by the horse barn. There’s so much potential out here. It’s a great facility for the youth in our county. We’re very proud of it. Rusk County loves their youth.”

If Hale sees only blood kin after he leaves elected office, he’ll never be lonely when he leaves his courthouse family.

The family land he ranches also is home to his sister, Martha Deen, and big brother Louis Jr. and his wife, Nancy, and his little brother, Howell and his wife, Amie.

“They all live on the original property that has been in my family since 1856,” he said. “It was part of the original Texas Land Grant.”

His daughter, Amy Lattice and her husband, Jeff, are nearby with grandchildren Dylan and Luke. So are Will Hale and his wife, Ginger, raising grandson Kolton. Nephew Justin Deen helps Uncle Bill on the ranch.

“But Rebecca helps me the most,” he said of his wife. “She helps me every day. I’m going to start ranching at a little more leisurely pace. Because, now I have to crowd that into two-and-a-half days a week, talking a half day for church on Sunday.”

So, in a way, come Jan. 1, 2021, Hale’s life will bring him right back to fence-mending. He’ll likely still be pondering whether his dad had nudged Commissioner Mercer to put the political bug in his son’s head.

“I don’t know that to be fact,” he said. “But, I just guess he did. And I wish I knew that before he died so I could’ve thanked him.”

Longview business owner's story included in anthology of successful women

Longview business owner Kaylie Dollison knows what a challenge feels like.

“Dealing with morning sickness during first period is hard,” she said last week, sitting in the spray-tan business she started more than two years ago in the Pine Tree area of Longview called Mermaid Lagoon. “I graduated (from high school) eight months pregnant.”

Dollison turned 30 in February, having survived teen pregnancy, drug abuse, bullying and an outlook that did not look rosy when she became pregnant her senior year at White Oak High School. Her story of accomplishment is being told in a book of 13 stories of women who overcame obstacles.

“My story is about being bullied and assaulted and drug problems and being a teen mom,” Dollison said. “It was hard. I wasn’t the only pregnant person (in my class), but I’m the only one that stayed and graduated. Everyone expected me to drop out.”

“When She Rises,” available on Amazon, celebrates women who overcame a terrorist attack, a mother’s suicide and other obstacles.

Compiled by Tiffany Skirrow, the book benefits a charity called One Woman at a Time that fights abuses against women such as forced marriage and genital mutilation.

The book also is supported by the television series “The Real Housewives of Cheshire” and will bring Dollison and her husband, Eric, to England for a Friday launch party.

“I know it’s a big party,” she said, “All the proceeds go to ... One Woman at a Time. That’s all I want to do in life, is help as many women as I possibly can.”

Dollison plans to play the tourist while the couple are overseas.

“I want to go see Buckingham Palace,” she said, lamenting that Big Ben is under renovation. “I would love to get a glimpse of the queen. That’s my top priority. My husband has never left the country, so I’m super excited.”

Dollison found her way into the book through Facebook — and prayer.

“I sent her an email and told her my story,” she said of Skirrow. “I got an email instantly back. She said, ‘You’re story sounds a lot like mine.’ I wrote my entire chapter myself. They edited my horribly spelled words and punctuation. That was it.”

Dollison and her husband married Jan. 31, 2009, and are parents to two boys and two girls, including the son Dollison had with another man her senior year in high school.

“I hope that women that read the book will kind of hear parts of their own story in it, and look back and think whatever they’ve gone through in the past does not define who you are or who you were,” she said. “My goal with my girls is to make them the strongest, kind of kick-butt people out there.”

What the examination found in Smith County

In the piney woods of East Texas, Smith County law enforcement almost never seize property without filing criminal charges — and the tone is set by the district attorney’s office.

Smith County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Wilson, who leads the forfeiture division, said his office’s policy is to only seize property if there’s a criminal charge. He said he’s had officers call him after pulling someone over with $16,000 in cash, and he asked them: “Well, how is that illegal?”

The Texas Tribune reviewed all 35 state seizure cases in Smith County from 2016, and only two of them did not coincide with a criminal charge. In one case, Wilson said a co-defendant was charged with drug possession, and in the second, the county declined to pursue criminal charges for evading arrest and also dismissed the related seizure of a motorcycle, returning it to a man who police said didn’t pull over for miles after speeding.

But Smith County also differed from the other counties in the investigation by bringing in the lowest dollar amount per seizure. Only two cases brought in more than $10,000; more than half of cash seizures resulted in less than $1,500.

In early 2016, police in Whitehouse seized $1,359 from Otha Ray Kincade after pulling him over for speeding. At the time, Kincade was on parole after serving less than 3 years of an 8-year prison sentence for a low-level possession charge. A search of his pickup found a handful of prescription painkillers, less than 2 grams of marijuana and less than 1 gram of cocaine.

He was charged with drug possession, but two days after the seizure, he arrived at the police department with copies of checks he told police were from an automotive paint company where he worked. He told them some of the cash was his pay and some was company money to buy supplies .

A manager at the paint store confirmed to the Tribune that Kincade did work for a sister company, and the money he had on him during his arrest was from the company.

Kincade pleaded with officers to return it, according to the report, telling them the drugs were for personal use and some of the money was to pay child support, according to a police report.

An officer told him he couldn’t get his money back because he was found with cocaine, and added that Kincade could have paid child support with the money he used to buy the drugs.

“I know for a fact it was because I was a black man, simply,” Kincade told the Tribune in a letter from prison. “I couldn’t pay my child support, nor my parole fees.”

But Kincade did not fight the forfeiture in court, and he was convicted and sentenced to 2 years in prison, plus nearly 3 years from his earlier sentence because his parole was revoked.

Civil forfeiture opponents, like Panju at the Institute for Justice, have argued that police in Texas too often pursue relatively small “petty cash” seizures, targeting low-income people who aren’t likely to challenge the seizure.

Wilson said that in seizures that appear on paper to only be related to a small amount of drugs, there is always more information than what is in the court records. Police look at criminal history and previous law enforcement encounters, and he said it’s not uncommon for people who are facing forfeiture to provide false documents.

“Each officer when they approach an individual, they approach everything. So it may appear on the surface just to be a personal use amount, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s not other factors that go into play,” he said.

Trump defends migration deal, says tariff threat remains if Mexico falls short on pledges

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and his acting Homeland Security secretary Sunday defended their new agreement with the Mexican government to curb migration, striking back at Democratic critics — including accusations that at least some parts of the deal predated Trump’s recent tariff threats.

In morning tweets, Trump said that Mexico “was not being cooperative on the Border” before the deal reached Friday. Now, he said, “I have full confidence, especially after speaking to their President yesterday, that they will be very cooperative and want to get the job properly done.”

He also said he could move to reimpose tariffs if Mexico doesn’t follow through on its promises. Some aspects of the deal, he added, remain to be announced — “one in particular,” he said, “will be announced at the appropriate time.”

Meanwhile, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan credited Trump’s tariff threats — which would have placed a 5 percent levy on Mexican goods starting Monday, ratcheting up over several months to as much as 25 percent — with producing a breakthrough.

“The president put a charge in this whole dialogue with Mexico with the tariff threat, brought them to the table,” McAleenan said in a “Fox News Sunday” interview.

Mexico announced it would implement “strong measures” to slow the flow of migrants across its territory toward the southern U.S. border, including the deployment of thousands of Mexican national guard troops. It also agreed to expand a program allowing Central American migrants to wait in Mexico while they await the adjudication of their asylum claims.

“People can disagree with the tactics,” McAleenan added. “ We have an agreement that, if they implement, will be effective.”

On Sunday, former congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said Trump had exaggerated what his tariff threats against Mexico had accomplished. They echoed a New York Times report alleging that the Mexican government had already agreed to several terms of the deal before Trump publicly floated the prospect of tariffs.

“These are agreements that Mexico had already made, in some cases months ago,” O’Rourke said on ABC’s “This Week.” “They might have accelerated the timetable, but by and large the president achieved nothing except to jeopardize the most important trading relationship that the United States of America has.”

During an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also said Trump had repackaged earlier agreements with Mexico to declare success in the trade standoff.

“I think what the world is tired of, and what I am tired of, is a president who consistently goes to war, verbal war, with our allies,” Sanders said, adding that Trump should focus on achieving comprehensive immigration reform. “We need a decent relationship with Mexico. They are our allies, as is the case with Canada. We should not be confronting them every other day.”

Trump, in his tweets, lashed out at the New York Times for suggesting the deal was not entirely new and also pointed out that tariffs could be back on the table if the Mexican government does not honor its end of the deal.

“There is now going to be great cooperation between Mexico & the USA, something that didn’t exist for decades,” he said. “However, if for some unknown reason ... there is not, we can always go back to our previous, very profitable, position of Tariffs.”

McAleenan echoed that sentiment, saying the dangling threat of tariffs amounted to “a mechanism to make sure that they do what they promise to do, that there’s an actual result that we see a vast reduction in those (migrant) numbers.”

Republican lawmakers appeared relieved in talk-show appearances Sunday.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, had voiced anxiety about the tariffs before the deal was reached. On Sunday, he had nothing but praise for Trump.

“Republicans understand that tariffs are attacks on American consumers, and we don’t want to see them in place long-term, nor do I believe President Trump does, either,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He’s using tariffs as leverage in trade negotiations, and I think he used them as leverage in this situation brilliantly, quite honestly.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., speaking on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures,” defended Trump and urged action on a renegotiated North American free-trade deal.

“Republicans need to provide the president with a lot of leeway,” Tillis said, adding that if lawmakers give Trump some “unorthodox” options for negotiating trade agreements, “then America wins.”

Top congressional Democrats on Saturday delivered dual attacks on the deal, saying that the agreement amounted to less than meets the eye while also arguing that the tariff threat that prompted it was reckless. They called on Trump to begin talks on bipartisan immigration legislation.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the deal was “likely to be one of the president’s typical, bogus solutions” to justify retreat from the tariffs, which had prompted a fierce backlash from business interests and many Republicans. He added that the provisions in the agreement were “likely to have only a small impact on solving the root causes of Central American migration because many of the components are things Mexico is already doing.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Trump had “undermined America’s pre-eminent leadership role in the world by recklessly threatening to impose tariffs on our close friend and neighbor to the south.”

“Threats and temper tantrums are no way to negotiate foreign policy,” she said.