You might want to avoid driving through Estelline, Texas.
This tiny town (population: 141) on U.S. Route 287 pulled in a staggering 89 percent of its gross revenues in fiscal year 2012 from asset forfeiture and traffic fines. Under civil forfeiture, someone does not have to be convicted of a crime, or even charged with one, to permanently lose his or her cash, car or even home. Moreover, under Texas law, law enforcement can keep up to 90 percent of the proceeds from a forfeited property.
While Estelline—once described as the second worst speed trap in Texas—surely generates a large proportion of its budget from forfeiture, it’s not alone in “policing for profit.” According to “Forfeiting Justice,” a report by the Institute for Justice, law enforcement agencies in Texas on average generated forfeiture proceeds equal to about 14 percent of their budget in 2007. For the top 10 agencies that took in the most forfeiture proceeds, they earned the equivalent of more than one-third of their budgets.
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Estelline’s forfeiture procedures also led to a $77,500 settlement with a 64-year-old woman reached last month. On November 29, 2012, Officer Jayson Fry, the town’s only police officer, pulled over Laura Dutton for speeding. He contacted an officer in Memphis, Texas, who brought over a drug-sniffing dog. According to Fry, the dog alerted, though no drugs were found during a search of Dutton’s F-150 pickup.
Instead, officers found over $29,000 in Dutton’s purse, still in bank currency wrapping. Dutton said she received that cash from a recent property sale. Police contacted her two sisters who verified her story. But Dutton was arrested anyway for money laundering and spent the night in jail.
In January 2013, the local district attorney refused to prosecute the case. Estelline returned $29,640 of Dutton’s cash and dropped a citation for speeding. “I just think that this is such a sham, flim-flam,” Dutton said last year. “I want to say, it’s just ‘policing for profit.’”
Yet according to Dutton, Estelline still kept an additional $1,400 of her cash. She filed a lawsuit arguing the town violated her Fourth Amendment rights. As part of the settlement reached in July, Dutton will collect more than $46,000. Yet it doesn’t change Estelline’s worrisome procedures. As the Amarillo Globe-News reported, the town “had no written drug dog policy, no written arrest policy and no established forfeiture policy. The city also maintained no written records of past searches or seizures.”
— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice