Ex-Texas DA accused of misusing asset forfeiture funds

Former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins is accused of misusing asset forfeiture funds for personal use. The Dallas Morning News got hold of an audit expected to be released later on today showing Watkins gave cash to everything from lawyers to travel expenses to a sponsorship for a football league.


Watkins also impermissibly donated money forfeited by drug and other offenders to local groups — $3,000 to Bishop Dunne Catholic School in Oak Cliff and $300 to sponsor a veterans group’s display at a parade, state Auditor John Keel reports.

In the final two years before the Democrat lost to Republican Susan Hawk, Watkins and his office spent an additional $71,000 of forfeiture money on public service announcements, other promotional activities, legal fees and travel…

In 2011, The News reviewed Watkins’ use of the money and found more than $50,000 for cellphone bills and $46,891 for bar association dues. Other expenses included $270.55 for “snacks/supplies for children waiting area” and $617.50 for 650 gold-plated whistles.

Here’s why this is a big issue: civil asset forfeiture is NOT seizing cash or other items from criminals. It’s grabbing things from people who authorities claim to suspect of maybe, possibly thinking about committing a crime, but don’t arrest them. It’d be like if a police officer walked up to someone and thought it odd they had thousands of dollars in cash, so they decided to seize it. Oh wait, that’s exactly what happened to a 22-year-old who was taking a train through New Mexico. Joseph Rivers was headed to Hollywood to make a music video. Albuquerque Journal picks it up from there.


A DEA agent boarded the train at the Albuquerque Amtrak station and began asking various passengers, including Rivers, where they were going and why. When Rivers replied that he was headed to LA to make a music video, the agent asked to search his bags. Rivers complied…

In one of the bags, the agent found the cash, still in the Michigan bank envelope.

“I even allowed him to call my mother, a military veteran and (hospital) coordinator, to corroborate my story,” Rivers said. “Even with all of this, the officers decided to take my money because he stated that he believed that the money was involved in some type of narcotic activity.”

This is government theft and what’s shocking is how flippant authorities are about this. A DEA agent even admitted to ABQJ how easy it is to get away with (emphasis mine).

We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty. It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”

Anyone see the problem here? The Fourth Amendment guarantees people have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects from unreasonable search and seizures. The Fifth Amendment says people shouldn’t have their life, liberty, or property taken from them without due process. Law enforcement, the folks who are supposed to protect us from criminals, are basically becoming the criminals themselves by grabbing the cash or items. They’re stretching the definition of reasonable to as far as they can get away with and not even allowing people to challenge in court because of how nebulously named the court cases are. Did you know in 2014 only $679M was seized in criminal asset forfeiture in the entire U.S.? That’s from people who were charge with crimes. You want to know how much was grabbed in civil asset forfeiture? $39B as in BILLION.


There is good news because movement is happening on the federal and state level on civil asset forfeiture reform. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is pretty involved in reform and pushing it through the Senate Judiciary Committee. One thing he found was the “Department of Justice” (note sarcasm) pretty much acts as an enabler for law enforcement theft.

The Justice Department administers a program called the Equitable Sharing Program.  It allows local law enforcement to keep up to 80 percent of the assets that they seize.  The trajectory of the program has climbed considerably in recent years, by the billions of dollars.  Those who have been mistreated by forfeiture have their lives and livelihoods turned upside down.  It has put law-abiding citizens in the cross hairs of an unfair process that produces profits for police but undermines the value of the forfeiture laws to target crime.  Legislation is needed to rein in abuses and prevent government overreach.

For those wondering what the Equitable Sharing Program is, it’s basically an end around past state civil asset forfeiture laws. Local law enforcement can grab items and give 20% of it to the federal government. The proposed FAIR Act would do plenty toward reform to civil asset forfeiture by requiring a hearing on the seized property within 14 days. Law enforcement would be forced to prove why they seized the property and present probable cause. It’d also end the Equitable Sharing Program. But police unions are pushing really, really hard against any reform. Fraternal Order of Police President Chuck Canterbury told the Senate how the FAIR Act would make things much more difficult for them.


“We can be sure of only one thing if the draft bill is enacted as written: there will be even fewer resources available to State and local law enforcement and fewer State and local law enforcement agencies will be able to participate in Federal task forces to combat regional and organized criminal threats, including domestic and foreign terrorist threats.”

Basically ending the sharing of seized cash means police (and states) would have to show…financial responsibility! The cash cow of being able to grab money from people who aren’t even charged with a crime, would be replaced by the local or state budget. Jason Pye at FreedomWorks sums up why civil asset forfeiture needs to be curtailed by telling me reforms “ensure the burden of proof falls on the government, and take away the profit motive often associated with forfeiture by directing the proceeds to the general fund or neutral accounts.” If conservatives and libertarians get angry about the government misusing taxpayer dollars, they need to be angry about federal, state, and local governments stealing from people who aren’t even charged with a crime. The Fifth Amendment exists for a reason. It’s time the government remembers it exists too.

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