Forfeiture VS Misuse

This story can be misleading.  There is no indication that the seizure of assets was improper.  Where this DA ran afoul of the law is that forfeited funds can be used for certain limited purposes.  The use of the funds by the former Dallas DA fell outside those guidelines.

I was assigned to a grant funded narcotics task force for fifteen years.  We owed our existence to making our cash match with forfeited funds each year.  We held an auction each year to sell off property; vehicles, electronics, jewelry, etc acquired with ill gotten gains. Some years it was tough and on more than one occasion we put cars that we were driving on the auction block, just to make our cash match. But for all the times we seized assets there were times we walked away, because it was the right thing to do.

There are very specific guidelines that outline how forfeited funds may be used.  It is pretty obvious nobody in the Dallas DA’s office bother to read them. When you put cash and items of value in front of a politician they just stop thinking.

Ex-Dallas DA accused of misusing asset forfeiture fund


Former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins is accused of misusing asset forfeiture funds for personal use. The Dallas Morning News got hold of an audit expected to be released later on today showing Watkins gave cash to everything from lawyers to travel expenses to a sponsorship for a football league….

In 2011, The News reviewed Watkins’ use of the money and found more than $50,000 for cellphone bills and $46,891 for bar association dues. Other expenses included $270.55 for “snacks/supplies for children waiting area” and $617.50 for 650 gold-plated whistles.

The beauty of asset seizure is that ill gotten gains are how bad guys keep score. You can threaten them with prison and that does not impress them.  They have already done the math and concluded that they can do the time. You really get their attention when you tell them you are going to take their shit way.

We made a compelling argument to support the seizure of three sets of breast implants.  A local speed dealer, who reported no income for ten years, yet still managed to have $500,000 on hand when we arrested him, bought three breast augmentation surgeries for three different women. We had the doctor’s bills to prove it.  We made the argument that the “plastic fantastics” were subject to seizure or in lieu of boobs the cash equivalent. We did not follow up but got bragging rights and the $500,000.

As the Christmas season approaches look to the Interstate Highways that are generally heading south.  If you look closely you will see ten year old pickup trucks, with or without camper  half shell, crammed full of stuff.  Usually they are traveling alone, sometimes in tandem with another vehicle. Typically there will be two occupants, usually male and usually illegal aliens.

We would get calls from patrol officers requesting a K-9 search and when we pulled up this is what we would find.  The officer would explain that they were illegals coming from Georgia or North Carolina.  They spoke no or very little English and they had all this stuff.  When the officer questioned them and later asked them to turn out their pockets they had cash in every pocket.  The officer just knew that under all that stuff there had to be the motherlode, maybe millions of dollars.

I would conduct my own interview. Juan and Julio would claim to be “primos” or cousins.  In all likelihood there was no blood relationship but they were from the same village in Mexico. My interview would determine that one of the occupants had purchased the vehicle within the previous two weeks.  A search of the vehicle with my K-9 would leave “Monty” totally unimpressed, with maybe a head fake on the money.  Almost all $20 bills in circulation are contaminated with drug residue.  A further search would reveal additional money in the socks, underwear, and passenger compartment add it all up and it was usually less than three thousand.

In going through the stuff in the back of the truck I would find lots of shoes, household goods, clothes and toys, all of it used but still serviceable.  Some bags of stuff would have a name on the outside.  It wasn’t unusual to find a money cache with a few hundred dollars in separate envelopes.

So is the cartel money pipeline? No.  What this is somebody from the village made it to North Carolina got a great job, with great pay, plucking chickens for minimum wage. He called home to brag about it and assure his friends that they too could be chicken pluckers. Pretty soon there are several guys from the same village all plucking chickens together and socking their savings away.

About the time the leaves start turning, one of the group, Juan decides he is going to go home for the Christmas Holiday. He announces his intent and pretty soon Julio agrees to make the trip with him. All the primos are hitting flea markets and secondhand stores buying stuff for the family.  The pickup truck might be owned by an individual or it may be a group effort.  The night before the Juan and Julio set off all the primo’s hand over cash to be delivered to the family back in the village.

This trip is fraught with danger.  They know that in rural Mexico bandits and police man roadblocks and demand payment for passage. It makes sense to Juan and Julio to divide up their money.  They have to have enough money, in one pocket to give up when they are stopped by the police, with a reserve in another pocket, in case they are little short.  Now here they are on the side of the road in Texas with the police ogling their money.

Even though Juan and Julio are illegals their status has no bearing on this type of incident.  As long as they are heading south or can spell south in any language of their choosing the Border Patrol or immigration will not respond. Usually the patrol officer would accept my judgment that Juan and Julio were not engaged in illegal activity, the money was legitimately earned and were not proceeds subject to seizure.

The task force was made up police officers seconded out from police agencies in the San Antonio area.  When we could, we would involve the local police department in an operation.  Sometimes that involvement was no more than using the police facility for pre and post raid briefings.  On at least three occasions where we had successfully seized a kilo of cocaine and arrested multiple defendants we returned to the police department to get reorganized.

On each occasion the City Manager would show up to see what was going on. Invariably, they would want to see the kilo of cocaine.  We would show it off.  The next question would be, “What’s that worth?” We would explain that we had agreed to pay $16,000.  The response from all three City Managers was the same, ” You mean we could get $16,000 at auction for that?” We would explain that unless he had a rat in his pocket there was no we in that particular transaction. The City Manager was welcome to try to sell it, but it would be his last official act, prior to being booked into County jail.