Cops Invoke Civil Forfeiture Laws To Swipe Over $200K In Cash Proceeds From Sale Of House From Innocent Owner Without Actually Charging Or Proving A Crime, Then Texas Courts Allowed Them To Get Away With It
- The U.S. Supreme Court receives thousands of appeals from the nation’s lower courts each year. It declines to hear almost all of them. But for Justice Clarence Thomas, one of those rejected cases earlier this month gave him the chance to challenge a widely criticized police practice: civil forfeiture.
Leonard v. Texas reached the Court after Lisa Leonard sought to overturn Texas’s seizure of roughly $200,000 in cash from a safe in her son’s car. In 2013, Liberty County police officers pulled him and his girlfriend over along what the state described as a “known drug corridor,” a law-enforcement term that can be applied to most major interstate highways. Officers seized the money and argued in local courts that the state could keep it, alleging it was likely the profits from drug sales.
Leonard, an IRS officer, said the cash was hers, denied it was related to any drug sales, and told the courts it constituted the proceeds from the recent sale of a house she’d owned in Pennsylvania. A bill of sale for the property had been found alongside the cash in the safe. Leonard testified that she started storing her money in safes after the stock market crashed in 2008, and that her son was bringing the money to Texas so she could buy him and his girlfriend a house there. The Texas courts sided with police, who only had to prove that a “preponderance of the evidence” showed the money was tied to drug activity.
Leonard asked the Supreme Court to overturn their decisions on due-process grounds. Because Leonard hadn’t raised that claim in the state courts during her initial appeal, Thomas agreed with his colleagues’ decision to decline review of it at their stage of the legal process. But he also sent a clear signal that he’d like to revisit the issue in the future. “Whether this Court’s treatment of the broad modern forfeiture practice can be justified by the narrow historical one is certainly worthy of consideration in greater detail,” he concluded.
***“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,” Thomas wrote in his statement. He cited a New Yorker article on a small Texas town where police and prosecutors collaborate to seize cash and goods from out-of-town motorists passing through, then split the proceeds between themselves.(1) “These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings,” he noted.
See generally, Police Can Use a Legal Gray Area to Rob Anyone of Their Belongings (When officers categorize wallets or cellphones as evidence, getting them back can be nearly impossible—even if the owner isn’t charged with a crime).