The Department of Justice has suspended the federal civil asset forfeiture program in Palmview, Texas while it investigates potential misappropriation of funds.
Palmview, a town of 5,500 people, received about $47,000 in funds in 2017 from the DOJ’s Equitable Sharing Program. This is a tiny amount compared to fund received by larger cities in the state. Last year, law enforcement agencies across Texas received $29 million from the program. These funds, however, are at the core of the city’s corruption investigation.
Civil asset forfeiture is the process where law enforcement can legally seize property believed to have been involved in a crime. This can happen even when the property’s owner has not been charged with a crime. Many states have laws governing where funds from local civil asset forfeiture cases may be spent. Assets obtained through Equitable Sharing Program, where local law enforcement partners with the feds, must be used to find local law enforcement agencies.
Leo Olivares, Palmview’s interim city manager recently notified the government that the finance department was auditing of the use of civil asset forfeiture funds in the city. In late April, the DOJ began its own review and suspended the Equitable Sharing Program until further notice.
The city’s audit revealed funds from the local forfeiture program as well as unrelated state programs had been deposited into the federal Equitable Sharing account. Further, funds from federal grant including Stone Garden and Border Star had also been deposited into the account.
Olivares believes this has been going on for the last four years. “So, you had basically local funds, state funds, other federal funds all going into asset forfeiture improperly,” he said.
Rather than being used to pay law enforcement expenses, funds were misued. For example, they paid for trips by personnel not involved in law enforcement. Former Police Chief Christopher Barrera has been accused of using city and civil asset forfeiture funds to promote the private security company where he had a second job. Barrera was fired at the end of April and has now filed a grievance with the city of Palmview.
“This is not a money-laundering scheme because, [in cases of] money laundering, you take dirty money and you clean it up. … Under what was going on in Palmview, you’re having money that’s clean, and it’s being improperly moved around,” said Olivares.
With the civil asset forfeiture program suspended, Palmview is unable to access these funds, leaving the city unable to pay some of its bills. Additionally, Palmview may have to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In a confidence-building measure, Olivares wrote a letter stating the city was “trying to resolve” the situation “as soon as possible.” However, the situation in Palmview is another example of the lack of oversight on civil asset forfeiture programs across the nation.
Even if the asset forfeiture funds had been correctly appropriated and seized, their use would still have been controversial. Civil asset forfeiture processes across the country are often seen to be incentivizing seizures by law enforcement. This is because no criminal conviction is required for assets to be seized in most states and the proceeds from asset forfeiture often go straight to law enforcement. This is termed “policing for profit.”
Even if Palmview resolves its current misappropriation issue, the underlying problems with civil asset forfeiture will remain unaddressed in the town.
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