Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Texas Asset Forfeiture Case
Imagine if police pulled you over, then seized your cash and property for no other reason than you were driving along a highway they claim is frequented by drug dealers. It happens more often than you'd think, and the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear a Texas case concerning "civil asset forfeiture" basically OK's the practice - at least, for now.
As reported by the Rutherford Institute, the case of Lisa Olivia v. Texas started with a traffic stop along U.S. Highway 59 in Texas on April 1, 2013. Police stopped James Leonard and his passenger, Nicosa Kane, for allegedly speeding and following another vehicle too closely. Police searched their vehicle and found a safe in the trunk.
When questioned about the safe, Leonard said it belonged to his mother, Lisa, and contained cash. Kane reportedly gave a conflicting account of the safe's contents, so police contacted Lisa, who refused to give them permission to open the safe. Authorities obtained a warrant, and found $201,000 and a bill of sale for a home in Pennsylvania.
As detailed at rutherford.org, police initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against the cash on the grounds that it must be connected to illegal activity because Highway 59 has a reputation as a drug corridor. Neither Leonard nor Kane were found to be in possession of any illegal substances or items, but both a trial and an appeals court rejected Lisa Leonard's claim that her son and Kane intended to use the cash to purchase a home in Texas. According to Amy Howe, writer for the Supreme Court Blog, both courts concluded that the state had shown "that it was more likely than not that the money came from drug sales or would be used in such sales."
On March 6, 2017, the SCOTUS denied a writ of certiorari in the case of Lisa Olivia Leonard v. Texas. In a written opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas stated, "Unfortunately, petitioner raises her due process arguments for the first time in this Court. As a result, the Texas Court of Appeals lacked the opportunity to address them in the first instance."
However, Justice Thomas did voice concerns about the practice of asset forfeiture, writing, "This system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use— has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses."
Justice Thomas cited the example of police in Tenaha, Texas, who, as reported by Sarah Stillman with The New Yorker in 2013, "regularly seized the property of out-of-town drivers passing through and collaborated with the district attorney to coerce them into signing waivers of their property rights", and, "threatened to file unsubstantiated felony charges against a Latino driver and his girlfriend and to place their children in foster care unless they signed a waiver".
"In another," Justice Thomas wrote, "they seized a black plant worker’s car and all his property (including cash he planned to use for dental work), jailed him for a night, forced him to sign away his property, and then released him on the side of the road without a phone or money." The man walked to a local Walmart and called his mother, who had to rent a car to pick him up.
As we reported in November of 2016, Texas is considered among the "top offenders" when it comes to civil asset forfeiture. Using a method known as equitable sharing, police in states with asset forfeiture laws can hand over seized items to federal authorities, who are then authorized to give back as much as 80% of the proceeds.
In 2014, the Institute for Justice gave Texas a D+ grade in regards to its forfeiture laws, citing a "low bar to forfeit and no conviction required", "poor protections for innocent third-party property owners" (as in Lisa Leonard's case), and "as much as 70% of forfeiture proceeds [going] to law enforcement in most cases".
The follow excerpt is from our 2016 article.
You may think that innocent parties have nothing to worry about, but sadly, that's not always the case.
According to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, the United States Supreme Court has held that seized property is considered guilty until proven innocent, and that the "innocent owner" defense is not constitutionally required. In fact, even in states with innocent owner laws, the burden of proof lies on the person whose property was seized. In other words, they must go to court to prove that they were not taking part in criminal activity, had no idea their property was involved or even suspected of being used in illegal activity, or that they took every reasonable step to detect and put a stop to such use.
[In 2015], the Department of Justice suspended payments under its Equitable Sharing Program, but resumed the practice in March of 2016.
If this entire process seems frightening to you, you're not alone. But I found this hilarious video of Jon Oliver, host of "Last Week Tonight", breaking it down for laughs while still providing several disturbing real-life examples of civil asset forfeiture in action.