Data Reveals Texas Law Enforcement’s Dependence on Forfeiture Funds

To gain some perspective about the size of Texas law enforcement agencies’ take from forfeiture, we examined the 2007 budgets of the top 10 forfeiture-earning agencies in the state, as well as a random sample of another 52 law enforcement agencies, and compared those budgets to their forfeiture proceeds.[1] We wanted to know:  Are agencies taking in large sums through forfeiture relative to their budgets?  If so, that would suggest agencies are relying on forfeiture as a means of generating revenue.

Looking first at the grand totals across all 62 agencies we examined, forfeiture proceeds represent 4.5 percent of budgets.  This provides a 30,000-foot view of forfeiture dollars compared to agency budgets across all agencies, but this fails to tell the whole story.  Missing is an agency-level indication of the forfeiture to budget ratio.  Looking at the data this way, we see that, for the average agency, forfeiture revenue represents 14 percent of its budget.  A representative agency is the 38th judicial district, 80 miles west of San Antonio, which serves a population of about 73,000 people in Uvalde County.  With a budget of $385,000, this agency took in more than $50,000 in forfeiture revenue in 2007.

Clearly, 14 percent is a sizable share of an agency budget.  Indeed, the records we requested indicated that many agencies actually count on securing forfeiture proceeds to fund their budgets.

But the biggest forfeiture money-makers in Texas are even more reliant on forfeited funds:  The top 10 forfeiture earners take in, on average, about 37 percent of their budgets in forfeiture funds.  (To calculate that percentage, we removed one agency, the 76th District Attorney in Camp County, from the top 10 because its forfeiture proceeds represented an astonishing 1,344 percent of its budget, and that skewed the average.)

Civil forfeiture advocates often claim that the process is used primarily by large agencies to target “high-profile” offenders.  But we found that rural agencies in our sample of 52 Texas agencies appear to be even more dependent on forfeiture funds than others, with forfeiture proceeds representing, on average, nearly one fifth—18.3 percent—of their budgets.

Similarly, the smaller agencies (those serving less than 1 million people) among the top ten forfeiture earners report forfeiture proceeds in excess of 65 percent of annual budgets.  (Again, we removed the 76th District Attorney in Camp County for this calculation.)

It seems unlikely that smaller and rural agencies meet more high-profile offenders than their urban counterparts—and more likely that forfeiture in rural areas is sweeping in instead every-day residents and visitors passing through, as stories of abuse in places like Tenaha suggest.

[1] The random sample was stratified by agency size, with 21 percent of the sample represented by agencies in cities and suburbs and the rest in rural locations.  After creating the random list of agencies, the respective budgets were collected either from the agencies’ websites or through direct requests to the agencies.

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