President Donald Trump and a North Texas sheriff had a meeting of the minds at the White House this week.
It’s not strange that a president who ran on law and order issues would have agreements with the law enforcement community. But the way he talked about it was trademark Trump, and in the process, the president jokingly offered to “destroy” the career of at least one Tea Party state senator and staked out a position on the wrong side of an 80-percent issue in Texas.
In a gathering of sheriffs Tuesday, President Trump asked for suggestions on ways to “bring about law enforcement in a really good, civil lovely way.” Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County chimed in about a “state senator in Texas that was talking about legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money.”
“Can you believe that?” Trump interjected.
“And,” Eavenson went on, “I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”
“Who’s the state senator?” Trump asked. “Do you want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career,” he joked, to laughter from the law enforcement officials in the room.
Eavenson didn’t give the name of the senator when pressed about it by the Dallas Morning News, and said he didn’t take the president’s offer literally.
For what it’s worth, neither do I, but he’s the president of the United States, and talking about destroying an elected lawmaker’s life for making law while a room full of law enforcement officers guffaw is chilling at the very least. It does nothing for public trust of either the president or law enforcement to be seen cavalierly laughing it up about abuses of power.
The exchange itself earned all the headlines, but let’s talk about the target(s) of the attack and the issue underlying it, which are more revealing of Trump’s unorthodox approach to governing. It’s a perfect illustration of how a Republican president with no particular ideological or party loyalties could go after even grassroots stars and popular issues on a whim.
Let the Speculation Begin
There’s some dispute about who Eavenson was referencing, but there are three possibilities, each of whom has met Trump’s suggestion admirably nonchalantly. There’s Sen. Bob Hall, a Tea Party activist and political outsider who defeated a three-term Republican incumbent in 2014 on a wave of grassroots excitement about his tendency to tell it like it is. A profile by the left-leaning Texas Observer called him “A fan of American and Texas flag shirts” with “bona fides as a businessman and military veteran” who proved “it’s nigh impossible to be too conservative.” Hall lives near Eavenson’s Rockwall County and has backed civil asset forfeiture reform— the policy to which Eavenson and Trump object.
Another possibility, and the senator who got most of the attention despite Eavenson using a male pronoun in his conversation with Trump, is Sen. Konni Burton. Another Tea Party hero, Burton turned Wendy Davis’ seat when the abortion activist ran her ill-fated campaign for governor of Texas. Also another political outsider, Burton owned a small business and was a full-time mom before jumping in the political ring. She was sworn in wearing custom cowboy boots embroidered with “Stand for Life,” and among other things, sponsored a bill calling for a constitutional convention to add fiscal restraint amendments.
Burton, who introduced a bill reforming civil asset forfeiture in the Texas legislature, responded to the oblique attack Wednesday: “I have never met with Sheriff Eavenson, nor even heard of him before yesterday. However, I take exception to his comments on asset forfeiture reform. While I certainly want law enforcement to have the tools necessary to combat large criminal enterprises, we must be vigilant to safeguard the rights of everyday citizens from potential abuse. Do not be mistaken or misled: this is not strictly a law enforcement issue; this is a property rights issue.”
The third option is Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat who has also pushed such legislation, but he’s unconcerned and doesn’t think Eavenson meant him.
When Cops Become Robbers
Now, let’s talk about the issue. Civil asset forfeiture is a system by which law enforcement can seize property on suspicion of the property having been involved in a crime. Whereas a person must be charged and convicted by a jury of peers, in civil asset forfeiture, his property has no such due process. In fact, citizens must prove their property innocent through a byzantine and bureaucratic process to reclaim it.
The Institute for Justice, which defends cases like the Platts’, in which they lost their car after their son was pulled over for a window-tint violation, explains:
Law enforcement argues it must have this power to solve crimes. A study by the state of Texas said the state’s “proximity to the Mexican border” makes it a “target-rich” environment for drug-related seizures. Eavenson suggested it’s necessary to head off cartels. Critics argue it’s a violation of property rights and incentivizes abuse because forfeiture becomes a source of income for police forces. The same study found three counties in which asset forfeiture made up more than 70 percent of the police force’s budget, and more than half of counties use such funds to supplement salaries in the district attorneys’ offices.
The federal government brought in more than $5 billion in civil asset forfeiture in 2014, topping the value of property stolen from Americans by burglars in the same year, according to the FBI.
The practice can be particularly burdensome to low-income citizens, as the government is not required to provide a lawyer but can require multiple court dates and onerous procedures to keep one’s property. In Philadelphia, police used the process to seize more than 1,000 homes over a decade, according to an Institute for Justice report. The confluence of constituency and property rights makes it an issue ripe for bipartisanism.
Popularity helps, too. When the Texas Public Policy Foundation polled the issue in January, it found 88 percent of Texans supported reforming the process— higher than support for other criminal justice reform polled. For these reasons, 2016 saw a wave of civil asset forfeiture reform laws passed in Ohio, California, Florida, and New Hampshire.
Now We All Know About It
Eavenson has said in the aftermath of this exchange that he hopes sunlight on the issue of civil asset forfeiture will work in the favor of proponents, but Derek Cohen, who works on criminal justice issues at the free-market Texas Public Policy Foundation, is skeptical.
Granted, there’s not a lot of civil asset forfeiture polling, but a 2015 YouGov survey suggests most don’t know what civil asset forfeiture is (72 percent), but a large majority think a charge or conviction should be required before property can be taken (71 percent).
“The current system is unworkable and establishes bad incentives, and it’s not conservative in the way it dispenses with property rights,” Cohen said. “It basically exists in the dark. That is a luxury that I think after yesterday no longer exists.”
“I will not be discouraged or deterred,” Burton said in her statement Wednesday — so I guess we’ll find out.