AUSTIN, Texas - Call them brave, principled, foolhardy, or maybe just unpersuaded that President Donald Trump really meant what he said when he declared at the White House last week that he would be happy to “destroy” the career of a Texas state senator who advocated civil forfeiture reform, but two senators and a half dozen members of the House did just that at a Capitol news conference Wednesday.
“Texas is known as a beacon of economic and personal liberty. We take our rights seriously here, particularly our property rights,” said state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Fort Worth. “The seizing and keeping of an individual’s property without a criminal conviction is in opposition to everything this country was founded upon and it must be changed.”
“It’s unbecoming to be policing for profits,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
But Trump weighed in on the other side of the issue at a White House meeting with sheriffs on Feb. 7.
When Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County complained to Trump that, “There’s a state senator in Texas that was talking about introducing legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money,” Trump interjected, “Can you believe that?”
“I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed,” Eavenson said.
“Who is the state senator? You wanna give me his name? We’ll destroy his career,” Trump said.
Eavenson did not identify the senator, but state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, who was not at Wednesday’s press conference, represents Rockwall County and told constituents before the legislative session that he was considering filing a bill that would require that property cannot be seized without a criminal conviction. Hall has not filed an asset forfeiture bill.
Asked at Wednesday’s event whether any of the lawmakers now felt targeted for destruction by the president for their stance, they looked at each other and smiled, but remained silent.
“I believe that’s no comment,” said Derek Cohen, deputy director of the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, which hosted the news conference.
“This is an issue that needs to be addressed,” Burton said of her reform legislation.
“Come and take it,” said Rep. Matt Schaeffer, R-Tyler.
Burton’s legislation, Senate Bill 380, and House Bill 1364, an identical House bill filed by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would repeal civil asset forfeiture laws in Texas that allow the taking of an individual’s property without a criminal conviction.
Reforming civil asset forfeiture laws has backing from legislators across the ideological spectrum, and Cohen said a statewide poll commissioned by the Texas Public Policy Foundation showed overwhelming support in every corner of the state.
The poll of 922 registered Texas voters conducted Jan. 22-29 by Baselice & Associates found that 88 percent did not believe the state or federal government should be allowed to take and keep a person’s property without a criminal conviction. That opinion was strongest in the region encompassing Austin, Waco and Bryan, where 96 percent did not believe it ought to be permitted.
The libertarian Institute for Justice, which has studied the issue, describes Texas forfeiture law as among the most expansive in the country, with no conviction required, little protection for innocent third-party property owners and as much as 70 percent of the forfeiture proceeds — which totaled more than a half billion dollars between 2001 and 2013 — going to law enforcement.