Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize money and property from someone without necessarily charging them with a crime. A Texas Tribune project analyzed 560 cases from four Texas counties to shine a light on how the controversial practice is used across the state.
This investigative project was built on exhaustive data-collecting in four Texas counties to find out how Texas law enforcement uses a powerful tool: civil asset forfeiture. We decided to focus on four counties that represented different areas of the state: urban, mid-sized, rural and border. The data came from public records covering more than 500 civil and criminal cases from 2016.
Law enforcement officials often claim that civil asset forfeiture helps them go after big criminal organizations. In reality, officers often seize small amounts of cash or property from regular people — typically as a result of traffic stops. Twenty percent of seizures did not result in a criminal charge, and about 40% of the citizens who lost property were never convicted of any crime. And the majority did not challenge the seizure, often because they couldn’t afford to do so and were not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer.
We have not seen any direct impact in terms of changes by law enforcement or state lawmakers. However, as stated, our findings challenge the dominant narrative — that civil asset forfeiture targets big-time criminals rather than ordinary people. A sole legislative hearing on this topic was held in April, before the article was published.. Legislation to regulate civil asset forfeiture and prevent abuse was introduced in the 2019 legislative session but failed; it is possible, especially with continued attention, that the topic will reemerge when the Legislature meets again in 2021.
Because Texas law enforcement agencies don’t make information on civil asset forfeiture cases readily available, this was a very data-heavy project. Only one of the four counties we examined made those case files available online; the other three kept only hard copies in their county clerk’s offices. We had to create our own database from hundreds of individual court cases and travel to several parts of Texas because records were not available electronically, and they were not free. We then had to clean up the data and resolve missing or incomplete items before starting our reporting.
The developer on this project used the data to create a Django database, which he used to collaborate with reporters and analyze the data. We built charts that tell the story based on that data. This project was published with the Tribune’s open-source development kit, which is built in node. Our art team created illustrations and assisted with page design.
In addition to our published story, the Tribune hosted two public panel discussions on civil asset forfeiture — in June and September — that featured journalists, a county prosecutor, a sheriff and advocates for reforming the system.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The hardest part of this project was reporting and gathering the data as explained above. The lack of transparency we encountered makes it difficult for journalists, watchdogs and concerned people to learn the truth about how civil asset forfeiture is being used. The fact that we were only able to gather this information with extensive travel and organize it using specialized skills shows that, in the age of easily accessible electronic records, Texas counties have a long way to go in making civil asset forfeiture data accessible.
What can others learn from this project?
Texas has 254 counties, so we chose the four counties that we reported from very carefully to represent different facets of this law enforcement practice in the state.
We regret not using a database immediately to gather the information — we lost time by translating spreadsheets into the data.
We have not found any other project that has created a database from scratch to reveal how this tool is used by law enforcement.
Additionally, other reporting has relied mainly on statewide asset forfeiture statistics collected by the federal government. Those numbers don’t reveal important details like how often forfeitures are connected to criminal charges. County-level statistics can provide important detail.