President Donald Trump, meeting with sheriffs from around the country Tuesday, offered to help "destroy" the career of one Texas lawmaker who sought to ban a controversial law enforcement practice.
During the meeting in the White House's Roosevelt Room, Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Texas, mentioned a practice that allows law enforcement to seize the cash and property of those suspected of committing a crime prior to a guilty verdict — a controversial procedure known as asset forfeiture.
"On asset forfeiture, 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 told the president, who interjected, "Can you believe that?"
"And I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed," the sheriff added.
Trump responded: "Who is the state senator? Do you want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career."
The back-and-forth, though awkward, earned laughter from those gathered around the conference table, though Trump did not seem to be joking. The Texas sheriff never gave the lawmaker's name.
Sheriff tells Trump a lawmaker is pushing legislation he doesn't want— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) February 7, 2017
Trump: “Want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career.”
Asset forfeiture is a form of confiscation of assets by the state and typically applies to suspected terrorist activity, drug-related crimes and other criminal and civil offenses. In an op-ed for U.S. News, Kevin Glass, a conservative columnist and director of policy for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, took issue with the practice, saying it is not helpful in stopping or preventing crime, but actually negatively impacts those who often never go on to be charged.
Asset forfeiture laws disproportionately affect vulnerable poor and minority populations. The kinds of crimes involved, and the lack of resources that victims of asset forfeiture typically have to fight them, are important here. In many cases of abuse, police are seizing things from people who merely wish to pursue their dreams.
Forbes contributor George Leef, a small-government advocate, wrote last month that there "certainly is something wrong" with asset forfeiture. He noted that law enforcement officers "should not be thinking about padding the department’s budget" with cash and properties as it seeks justice for potential criminals.
However, not everyone on the right is opposed to the practice. Republican Sen. Jeff Session of Alabama, Trump's nominee for U.S. attorney general, said in 2015 that he was "very unhappy" with criticism of the practice because, in his view, "taking and seizing and forfeiting, through a government judicial process, illegal gains from criminal enterprises is not wrong," Roll Call reported.
From Roll Call:
[Sessions said] it would be "unthinkable that we would make it harder for the government to take money from a drug dealer than it is for a businessperson to defend themselves in a lawsuit." Thus, Sessions believes when government wants to take property allegedly involved in a crime, it “should not have a burden of proof higher than a normal civil case.”
As TheBlaze previously reported, Texas State Sen. Konni Burton, a Republican, is leading a legislative battle to prohibit law enforcement from taking an individual's property without a criminal conviction.
Burton's legislation would make it necessary for law enforcement officers to know beforehand that the possessors of the seized cash or property are, in fact, actually criminals and the property is in some way linked to an actual crime.
"If Texas is like a lot of other places, you're going to get heavy public support for measures like these, with the law enforcement lobby being the main voice against reform," Mike Maharrey, national communications director for the 10th Amendment Center, a think tank that advocates shrinking government power, told the Dallas Observer of Burton's proposal.
"They'll cry about blood running in the streets and an inability to fund their operations without it," he continued. "Civil forfeiture is definitely a well-defended piece of turf that law enforcement holds where it's able to."
While the law enforcement community largely backs asset forfeiture, claiming it helps them to effectively combat terrorism and the drug trade, giving police the edge in discovering criminalizing information, politicians on both sides of the aisle have voiced opposition to the practice.
Former President Barack Obama has a mixed record on asset forfeiture. In 2015, the Department of Justice announced it would do away with the Equitable Sharing Program, a system where the federal government grants state and local law enforcement agencies the assets they've seized, the Daily Caller reported.
According to the Washington Post, the burden of proof falls on the defendant to make the case as to why they should get their property back from law enforcement officials. "We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty," an Albuquerque DEA official told the Albuquerque Journal.
However, less than one year later, Obama's Justice Department, under the direction of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, reinstated the program. The initiative, according to some, presents a major conflict of interest because it increases local law enforcement groups' incentive to seize property, knowing it will likely be granted to them by the federal government.
Law enforcement officials practice asset forfeiture by "removing the proceeds of crime and other assets relied upon by criminals and their associates to perpetuate their criminal activity against our society," according to the Justice Department.
"Asset forfeiture has the power to disrupt or dismantle criminal organizations that would continue to function if we only convicted and incarcerated specific individuals," the DOJ's explainer added.