Simpson asset bill dies on law enforcement objection
June 5, 2015 at 4 a.m.
A bill limiting law enforcement's authority to take property suspected to be involved in crimes died in the recently concluded legislative session on the same objections that caused a pre-session dustup between state Rep. David Simpson and officials in the two counties he represents.
The Longview Republican's House Bill 3171 would have forced the government to win a conviction before it could take property associated with a crime.
The bill never left the State Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives after a public hearing in April.
"You've got to be able to count seven votes," said Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the 13-member committee. "None of my (committee) members came to me and said, 'We've got to have this bill.' "
Cook, who represents four East Texas counties, said law enforcement interests had asked Simpson for several changes in the bill. After the April 16 public hearing, Simpson said he would lower a threshold on the value of vehicles seized because drug runners often use cheap cars.
"I think it needed more than that," Cook said Thursday. "Law enforcement was opposed to this piece of legislation. This is a valuable tool for law enforcement that Rep. Simpson wanted to take away."
Simpson consistently has said he wants law enforcement to be able to take property derived from or used in criminal activity — including cash, vehicles and homes. He insists, though, an award of the property to the investigating agencies should get in line behind the criminal courts and hinge on a finding of guilt.
"They wanted me to do more for law enforcement," Simpson said. "So (Cook) just sat on the bill. ... He told me to quit working the committee until I got law enforcement on board. I was making good progress until it was clear he would not bring it to a vote."
Burden of proof
In addition to holding forfeitures at bay pending a conviction, Simpson's measure repealed the civil court avenue. It forced the government to seek property through criminal courts where the burden of proof is higher.
Law enforcement officials counter that defendants often make bond and never show up to defend their property — evidence, they say, the cash or property was indeed part of criminal activity.
Simpson said forfeitures in those instances should be funneled to the State Comptroller of Public Accounts, where unclaimed money already goes.
Simpson cited national reports of law enforcement agencies abusing civil forfeiture laws, using them as a screen to enrich local budgets.
Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano, however, pointed out Thursday that the representative never cited a local instance of that.
"We asked him his reasoning behind his thoughts, and was there a specific issue in the district that caused his concern," the sheriff said. "He couldn't provide any issues."
Simpson said he's proud that examples of misuse of the law have not been reported locally — or even statewide since a problem was exposed in Teneha six to eight years ago, leading to indictments of officials.
"I believe that our local officials are law-abiding citizens who value liberty and the rule of law as much as I do," he said. "I have sought to work with them on the issue and will continue to do so in the future."
One area Simpson consistently raised, and was reported nationally, occurs when an officer seizes a large sum of cash from a driver. Due process requires the civil courts to decide whether the government can keep the money, but its owner might spend $4,000 on attorney and court costs to recover $5,000.
"That could be so," the sheriff said. "But, it's not the norm. (District attorneys) evaluate those forfeitures when they are filed, and there has to be some probable cause associated with that. They don't just take those forfeiture cases and file them."
Cerliano's County Organized Drug Enforcement unit fund, fueled by forfeitures, stood at about $220,000 earlier this spring.
The sheriff, County Judge Bill Stoudt and their counterparts from Upshur County went to Austin in December, along with Kilgore Police Chief Todd Hunter, to confront Simpson on the issue. The hastily arranged trip, on a donated flight, occurred when the local officials learned that Simpson would join a panel discussing reforms to seizure law.
"He certainly didn't notify us," Stoudt said. "I think he was taken aback by our position."
Stoudt later drove to Austin for another reason but stopped at the Capitol to speak with Simpson.
"I had made my feelings very clear to Rep. Simpson, and we agreed to disagree and continued to have dialogue," Stoudt said. "Obviously, it appears (lawmakers) felt it was not necessary to change the existing law, which I appreciate."
There's another session in two years — another election for Simpson to win, too.
"If the abuse and misuse of civil asset forfeiture continues without obtaining an associated criminal conviction, and citizens continue to complain about the injustice of the current practice, I will re-file the bill," Simpson said. "We certainly want to fight crime and punish the wrongdoer, but at the same time, we want to be sure that we protect the innocent and uphold justice and due process of law."