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Behind Trump joke to sheriff, an offer to defend ugly police lawlessness

Decoding Trump’s offer to ruin Texas lawmakers who want to stop cops stealing from the innocent.

President Donald Trump met with county sheriffs at the White House on Tuesday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump met with county sheriffs at the White House on Tuesday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

A pair of Texas state lawmakers working across party lines to protect citizens from police thievery might have just wandered onto the president’s mercurial, erratic radar.

While hosting sheriffs from around the country in the Roosevelt Room on Tuesday, President Trump told Rockwall County Sheriff Harold Eavenson he’d be happy to help blitz the sheriff’s political opponents. Eavenson had just mentioned an effort by state senators to change the state’s asset forfeiture law, which allows cops and deputies there to snatch more than $40 million a year from people they decide are criminals —without ever charging them with any crime or proving their case to a judge.

“I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed,” Eavenson told the president.

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“Do you want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career,” Trump said, to laughter from the staffers and sheriffs around the table.

Her career, actually.

State Sen. Konni Burton, a libertarian-leaning Republican from a district on the southern edge of the Fort Worth metropolitan area, is behind a bill to stop law enforcement from using mere probable cause to seize everything from cash to houses to vehicles. Trump and Eavenson might find her co-author, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D), a more comfortable enemy: He is latino and represents a border district instead of a semi-suburban one. Neither Burton nor Hinojosa immediately responded to requests for comment.

The bipartisan pair are indeed looking to curtail asset forfeiture in Texas. The system is not just rooted in a flagrant violation of Americans’ right to due process, Burton argues, but it’s also deeply unfair. Victims of forfeiture have to prove they aren’t criminals, without the help of a public defender, in a court proceeding governed by rules that privilege police claims and set a higher bar for plaintiffs’ motions.

Opposition to asset forfeiture was briefly a non-partisan thing. Even the staunch conservative columnist George Will has savaged the policy as an abrogation of the Bill of Rights and a contortion of the law so absurd it would make an Alice in Wonderland character blush.

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Police departments, often themselves strapped for cash, routinely use civil asset forfeiture to seize Americans’ property. Even the loosest connection back to a minor drug crime can cost someone his or her house, and even where no such connection really exists, it can be almost impossible for forfeiture victims to prove their case in court after police take their stuff. In many cases, those police departments warn anyone who criticizes the policy that rolling it back would leave local departments destitute.

Under Burton and Hinojosa’s bill, cops could no longer purloin your cash, car, house, or appliances just because they are pretty sure you committed a crime. They would need to win a criminal conviction first. The bill effectively repeals the practice, a much sterner response than the soft-touch reform packages enacted previously after investigations into asset forfeiture abuses made headlines.

When lawmakers have agreed to change asset forfeiture without destroying it, police organizations have generally been eager to help. When Congress and the Clinton White House took up reformers’ gripes in the late 1990s, the Fraternal Order of Police worked hard to ensure the weakest possible version of Clinton’s preferred legislation made it into law. Congress actually expanded the use of asset forfeiture in some dangerous ways, despite branding its work as a reform bill.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly twisted itself in knots to uphold asset forfeiture without any criminal charge or conviction. Officially, these facial violations of the plain text of the Bill of Rights are legal. The government can keep bringing absurd cases like United States vs. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins until the court sees sense.

Thanks to Trump’s win, asset forfeiture is likely to be expanded yet again. At the very least it certainly won’t be curtailed anytime soon: Incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a staunch advocate of this practice. He’s even insisted that it is almost never used incorrectly. Both Trump and Sessions are hugely deferential to what rank-and-file law enforcement personnel tell them — in this case, that criticisms of asset forfeiture are “fake news” — and skeptical of the kinds of comprehensive outside analyses that have demonstrated abuses and constitutional issues with programs like asset forfeiture.

Perhaps it’s understandable that Trump’s cop-loving regime will push for retrograde policies like this one and reject the amply evidence that such “policing for profit” degrades society and law enforcement alike. But it is not normal or acceptable for a president to casually hint at targeting public servants who disagree with him.

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It is dark to imagine the leader of the federal government steamrolling arguments between duly elected Texans about what the rules should be in their state — and darker still to think of him doing so just because a guy with a shiny badge told him a story at lunch.