Any border wall between the United States and Mexico can’t be immoral, President Trump said at a Cabinet meeting yesterday (Jan. 2), because the Vatican has one, too.
“When they say the wall’s immoral, well then you got to do something about the Vatican, because the Vatican has the biggest wall of them all,” Trump said, according to The Hill.
Trump made similar comments about the Vatican’s wall in 2016, prompting a flurry of comments from historians explaining that while Trump’s wall would, in theory, keep out migrants, the Vatican’s walls were designed for entirely different purposes. [Photos: Ruins of Mysterious Wall Found in Jordan]
They were built to keep out pirates.
In the ninth century, Pope Leo IV announced that Vatican City needed walls to protect it from the Saracen pirates who were pillaging southern Italy. (Saracen is a term from the Middle Ages that refers to Arabs and Muslims.) After the Saracens attacked Rome and the basilicas of Old St Peter’s and Saint Paul Outside the Walls in A.D. 846, Pope Leo IV ordered the construction of a 39-foot-tall (nearly 12 meters) wall around part of Vatican City, an independent city-state where the pope lives.
But the imposing wall soon opened up, according to historians.
“Gradually, the Muslim threat receded and many gates were opened in the walls,” Thomas Noble, a papal history expert at Notre Dame University, told the news website Best Life.
President Trump has signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law, which includes a provision that legalizes hemp. The 2018 Farm Bill was passed last week by the House of Representatives by a vote of 369 to 47. The vote came just a day after the Senate approved the same bill 87 to 13.
The 2018 Farm Bill was passed last week by the House of Representatives by a vote of 369 to 47. The vote came just a day after the Senate approved the same bill 87 to 13. Today, President Trump signed the measure into law, making hemp legal for the first time in decades.
The hemp provision, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel, removes hemp from the federal list of controlled substances. This effectively legalizes it throughout the country, allowing farmers to grow it as they can any other agricultural commodity such as corn and soybeans.
According to congressional research, the hemp market consists of over 25,000 various products ranging from textiles to food products. Despite its cultivation being illegal, the United States imports roughly half a billion dollars in hemp each year from other countries.
Over the last five years, an estimated 2,627 homeless people have perished on the streets.
Thousands of people are living on the streets in every UK town and city and a record number of roofless people are dying.
One encounters homeless people on every major high street—sitting, sleeping, begging, wrapped in a sleeping bag or blankets in an attempt to keep out the winter cold.
Homelessness shot to national prominence again over the holiday period when a man died just feet from Parliament on December 20. Hungarian national Gyula Remes had been homeless for the last three months. According to friends, he had just found a job as a chef’s assistant and was hoping to be off the streets soon.
His death came as the Office for National Statistics revealed figures showing that almost 600 people died in 2017 while sleeping rough on the streets. The grim tally of 597 dead marks a 24 percent increase over the last five years, with the highest numbers in London and the north west of England. Over the last five years, an estimated 2,627 homeless people have perished on the streets.
There were 50 deaths on the streets of Greater Manchester last year, with homeless people dying at a higher rate, relative to population, than London, where 136 homeless people died.
In the region’s main city, Manchester, on December 26, Tony Lawless, who had been a rough sleeper on and off since the death of his father, was found dead in Rochdale canal. The former market worker had just been released from North Manchester General after collapsing on Christmas Day and was 51 years old.
Homeless people often resort to sleeping in refuse bins, which has led to several deaths. Last January, Russell Lane, 51, died from his injuries after being tipped into the back of a refuse lorry in Rochester, Kent. He had wrapped himself in a disused roll of carpet in the bin.
The number of rough sleepers in England doubled in 2017 to 4,571, from 1,768 in 2010, according to the House of Commons Library, which also reported average life expectancy for a rough sleeper at just 47 for a male and 43 for a woman.
The first published deaths of the homeless on the street coincide with the latest figures released by the Crisis charity, revealing a record 170,000 families and individuals without homes. The number is expected to rise.
Research carried out at Heriot-Watt University on behalf of Crisis found a year-on-year increase in homelessness between 2012 and 2017. Approximately 38,000 under-25s and 4,200 over-65s are homeless.
There are 170,800 homeless households in comparison to 151,600 in 2012. Included in this figure are those who are rough sleeping, sofa-surfing, or staying in hostels.
Crisis lays the blame at the doors of government, including policies which have created an acute shortage of genuinely affordable social housing, reduced Housing Benefit which no longer covers rent and is not available to under 25s, and youth thrust out of the care system aged 18 without provision. John Sparkes, chief executive, said, “This new research echoes what we see every day in our front-line work—that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ homeless person … this crisis is affecting people who range from young care-leavers to pensioners. … This is a wake-up call to see homelessness as a national emergency.”
These figures are corroborated by housing charity Shelter, which revealed at the end of November that there are 320,000 homeless people living in Britain, an increase of 25,000 since last year. This figure, which includes people in working families, is likely an underestimate. Official figures only include those in contact with local authorities and not the hidden homeless residing with family or friends.
Shelter Chief executive Polly Neate said, “Due to the perfect storm of spiralling rents, welfare cuts and a total lack of social housing, record numbers of people are sleeping out on the streets or stuck in the cramped confines of a hostel room.”
The charity cited one of the causes of rising homelessness as the low level of housing benefit—a means-tested welfare benefit to help meet costs for rented accommodation—which does not cover average rent. The local housing allowance in Manchester, for example, is set at £532 a month for a family needing a three-bedroom house. However, private landlords, apart from student lets, ask for rents of £800 per month and upwards.
The homeless crisis has become so visible and public anger so widespread that Theresa May’s Conservative government has been forced to retract its previous denial of responsibility. Just prior to Christmas, Housing Minister James Brokenshire said the Conservatives “need to ask ourselves some very hard questions” regarding the increase in rough sleepers since the government came to office, and that what was necessary were “changes to policy.”
This was just PR, with the government doing virtually nothing to ameliorate an appalling crisis. After announcing “the end of austerity” in September, May allocated a measly £100 million—a repackaging of money already announced—as part of the government’s “Rough Sleepers Strategy” that is supposedly to eradicate rough sleeping by 2027!
Leading politicians of all parties, whose austerity policies over decades are responsible for the crisis, interrupted their Christmas celebrations for a show of sympathy for the homeless and destitute.
In recent weeks, the public have been forced to endure the obscene spectacle of Conservative MPs visiting food banks and supermarket food bank drop-off points for photo-ops. Among these were Dominic Raab, who infamously said in 2017 that those using foodbanks were people “who had a cashflow problem episodically.” The reality is that huge swathes of the population are going hungry and being forced onto the streets due to more than a decade of brutal anti-social policies, such as the bedroom tax and universal credit.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn visited a homeless hostel run by Crisis in his Islington constituency on Christmas Eve. In his Christmas message he invoked the spirit of the Good Samaritan, while his government-in-waiting has bent over backwards to reassure the rich it will not encroach on their ill-gotten gains to provide essential services.
Labour’s promise of initial funding of £100 million for one year into a rough sleepers’ cold weather fund is derisory and would not end rough sleeping. Corbyn acknowledged as much when he suggested Labour in office would repeal the 1824 Vagrancy Act, under which there have been 2,365 prosecutions in 2015-2016. This would make it legal to sleep and beg on the streets but would not eradicate the causes of destitution.
The homeless crisis is an indictment of a failed system, capitalism. Beginning in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, and pursued enthusiastically by subsequent Labour governments, over 1.5 million council houses were sold off as the building of new stock ground to a halt. Last year only 6,463 homes were built in England for social rent, while 1.25 million families are on the waiting list.
Labour councils throughout the UK have implemented every cut imposed by central government and implemented privatisation of services with zeal. In London, residents have organised in opposition to the regeneration plans of Labour’s mayor Sadiq Khan, which involve the demolition of 8,000 council estate homes so property developers can get their hands on prime real estate to make a killing.
Greater Manchester’s social housing stock has declined by 5 percent in the six years since 2012 and 85,639 households languish on Labour council-run housing waiting lists. This led to 2,000 children spending their Christmas in emergency accommodation.
Gentrification and social cleansing are happening everywhere, with city skylines crowded with cranes and newly built luxury high-rise blocks that are unaffordable to everyone but the richest.
The resources can and must be found to provide safe, decent homes for all. The wealth of the billionaires and super-rich, acquired by exploiting the working class, must be expropriated to meet urgent, life or death, social needs.
Despite president Trump’s announced US troop withdrawal, the Afghan opium trade continues to flourish. It is protected by US-NATO occupation forces on behalf of a nexus of powerful financial and criminal interests.
“In 2001, 1,779 Americans were killed as a result of heroin overdose. By 2016, the number of Americans killed as a result of heroin addiction shot up to 15,446.”
Source: War is Good for Business and Organized Crime: Afghanistan’s Multibillion Dollar Opium Trade. Rising Heroin Addiction in the US – Global ResearchGlobal Research – Centre for Research on Globalization
Afghanistan’s opium economy is a multibillion dollar operation which has a direct impact on the surge of heroin addiction in the US.
Despite president Trump’s announced US troop withdrawal, the Afghan opium trade continues to flourish. It is protected by US-NATO occupation forces on behalf of a nexus of powerful financial and criminal interests.
In 2004, the proceeds of the Afghan heroin trade yielded an estimated global revenue of the order of 90 billion dollars. This estimate was based on retail sales corresponding to a total supply of the order of 340,000 kg of pure heroin (corresponding to Afghanistan’s 3400 tons of opium production) (See Michel Chossudovsky, America’s War on Terrorism, Chapter XVI, Global Research, Montreal 2005)
Today a rough estimate based on US retail prices suggests that the global heroin market is above the 500 billion dollars mark. This multibillion dollar hike is the result of a significant increase in the volume of heroin transacted Worldwide coupled with a moderate increase in retail prices.
Based on the most recent (UNODC) data (2017) opium production in Afghanistan is of the order of 9000 metric tons, which after processing and transformation is equivalent to approximately 900,000 kg. of pure heroin.
With the surge in heroin addiction since 2001, the retail price of heroin has increased. According to DEA intelligence, one gram of pure heroin was selling in December 2016 in the domestic US market for $902 per gram.
The Heroin trade is colossal: one gram of pure heroin selling at $902 is equivalent to almost a million US dollars a kilo ($902,000) (see table below)
Flash back to to 2000-2001.
In 2000, the Taliban government with the support of the United Nations implemented a successful drug eradication program, which was presented to the UN General Assembly on October 12, 2001, barely a week after on the onset of US-NATO invasion. Opium production had collapsed by 94 percent.
In 2001 opium production had collapsed to 185 tons down from 3300 tons in 2000. (see Remarks on behalf of UNODC Executive Director at the UN General Assembly, Oct 2001, excerpt below)
The US-NATO led War against Afghanistan served to Restore the Illicit Heroin trade
The Afghan government’s drug eradication program was repealed. The 2001 war on Afghanistan served to restore as well as boost the multibillion dollar drug trade. It has also contributed to the surge in heroin addiction in the US.
Opium production had declined by more than 90 per cent in 2001 as a result of the Taliban government’s drug eradication program.
Immediately following the invasion (October 7, 2001) and the occupation of Afghanistan by US-NATO troops, the production of opium regained its historical levels.
In fact the surge in opium cultivation production coincided with the onslaught of the US-led military operation and the downfall of the Taliban regime. From October through December 2001, farmers started to replant poppy on an extensive basis.” (see Michel Chossudovsky, op cit.)
Since 2001, according to UNODC, the production of opium has increased 50 times, reaching 9000 metric tons in 2017. (See Figure 1 below)
Heroin Addiction in the US
Since 2001, the use of heroin in the US has increased more than 20 times. Media reports rarely report how the dramatic increase in the global “supply of heroin” has contributed to “demand” at the retail level.
There were 189,000 heroin users in the US in 2001, before the US-NATO invasion of Afghanistan. By 2012-13, there were 3.8 million heroin users in the US according to a study by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Extrapolating the 2012-2013 figures (see graph below), one can reasonably confirm that the number of heroin users today (including addicts and casual users) is well in excess of four million.
In 2001, 1,779 Americans were killed as a result of heroin overdose. By 2016, the number of Americans killed as a result of heroin addiction shot up to 15,446. (see graph below)
“My Administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic” says Donald Trump.
Those lives would have been saved had the US and its NATO allies NOT invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 2001.
The first thing they did was to undermine the drug eradication program, restore the opium economy and the drug trade.
Source: National Institute of Drug Abuse
Opium production has increased 50 times in relation to 2001 (following the Afghan government’s drug eradication program). In 2001, the areas of opium cultivation had fallen to 8000 hectares (185 metric tons of opium).
According to the UNODC, Afghanistan produces (2007) 93% of the illegal “non-pharmaceutical-grade opiates” namely heroin.
The 2017 Afghanistan Opium Survey (released in May 2018) by UNODC confirms that the farm areas allocated to opium are of the order of 328,000 hectares with opium production in excess of 9,000 tons.
War is good for business. It contributed to spearheading heroin use. The Afghan opium economy feeds into a lucrative trade in narcotics and money laundering.
It is worth noting that in 2010 UNODC modified the concepts and figures on opium sales and heroin production, as outlined by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).
“UNODC estimates that a large proportion of the Afghan opium harvest is not processed into heroin or morphine” (UNODC, 2010a). …EU drug markets report: a strategic analysis, EMCDDA, Lisbon, January 2013 emphasis added.
What this new methodology has done is to obfuscate the size and criminal nature of the Afghan drug trade, intimating –without evidence– that up to 20% of Afghan opium is no longer channeled towards the illegal heroin market.
More than Half a Trillion Dollars
The profits are largely reaped at the level of the international wholesale and retail markets of heroin as well as in the process of money laundering in Western banking institutions, an issue which is not addressed by the Vienna based UNODC.
The global monetary value of the heroin market (which is protected by powerful groups) is colossal.
The retail price of heroin (sold by the gram) can vary dramatically from one country to another, it also depends on the percentage of pure heroin. This does not facilitate the process of estimating the monetary value of the global trade in heroin.
Recorded retail street prices for heroin with a low level of purity must be converted to a dollar value which corresponds to pure heroin.
What is sold at the street level usually has a low percentage of pure heroin. The process of estimation requires transforming the street level prices into what the DEA calls heroin price per gram pure (PPG)
From one ton of opium you can produce 100 kilos of pure heroin. The US retail prices for heroin (with a low level of purity) was, according to UNODC (2012) of the order of $172 a gram (namely $17,200 per kilo)
The estimated price per gram of pure heroin, however, is substantially higher.
In December 2016, the heroin price per gram pure (PPG) was of the order of $902 in the US, according to DEA intelligence ie. $90,200 a kilo.
Higher Heroin Prices in the UK
In the UK which is the entry point of Afghan heroin into the EU market, the recorded retail price (according to a 2015 estimate) is substantially higher than that estimated for the US market by the DEA:
“An imported kilo [of heroin] cut at 25% street purity provides enough raw material for 16,000 individual deals at £10 a hit – pushing the takings to £160,000 [a kilo]. (The Guardian, December 20, 2015)
Rough Estimate of the Monetary Value of Afghanistan’s Global Heroin Market
According to the UNODC, 7600-7900 tons of opium were available for heroin production and export (out of a total of 9000-9300 metric tons). According to the UNODC, approximately half of the opium is processed into heroin within Afghanistan.
The global monetary value for heroin can be roughly estimated using the US price equivalent PPG measurement for pure heroin of US 902,000 a kg. (December 2016, DEA) and the (lower) production figure of 790,000 kg of pure heroin (estimated by the UNODC).
Using the US retail price equivalent of pure heroin (DEA), the global monetary value generated by the Afghan heroin trade (2017) is of the order of $712,580,000,000 (712.58 billion dollars), an amount equivalent to the US defense budget.
This is a conservative estimate based on adopting the “lower figure” of 7900 metric tons (2017) (recommended by the UNODC methodology which is arbitrary and questionable, see above).
If we had based the calculation on the total production of opium which is in excess of 9ooo metric tons (2017), the global monetary value of the heroin market would have been in excess of $800 billion. It should also be mentioned that this estimate relies solely on the the US price for pure heroin (DEA).
Back in August 2018, President Trump signed the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act “which authorizes a top-line [defense] budget of $717 billion”, just a few million dollars in excess of the estimated global monetary value of the Afghan heroin market.
The global monetary value of the heroin market is of the same order of magnitude as the defense budget of the USA.
Needless to say, the Pentagon not to mention the CIA which launched the opium economy in Afghanistan in the late 1970s are intent upon protecting this multibillion dollar industry. The proceeds of the Afghan drug trade were initially used to finance the recruitment of Al Qaeda Mujahideen mercenaries to fight in the Soviet-Afghan war.
Over the last few years Tommy Robinson has gone from being a marginal character in the far right to a prominent figure with over one million Facebook followers. He’s also supported with lavish donations in the UK and overseas.
It’s hard to think of anyone else that has so rapidly gone from being a convicted football thug to a worldwide known political figure. Tommy Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, set up the extreme right Islamophobic English Defence League back in 2009. He has always denied being a racist and claims he does not worry about the colour of someone’s skin. But he is strongly opposed to Islamist ideology, although he claims not to be opposed to Muslims as people. This claim was undermined when he was recorded on film saying “Somalis are backward barbarians,” and British Muslims are “enemy combatants who want to kill you, maim you and destroy you.” The film also shows him claiming that refugees are “raping their way through the country.”
In 2017 Robinson began campaigning against what he called “grooming gangs,” appearing outside the courts and denouncing the defendants because of their religion and warning that their abuse had been covered up. He was arrested for contempt of court, and within just one day £20,000 in donations were raised to support him.
The following year Robinson was arrested again outside a court in Leeds, for contempt of court, after placing a live video on Facebook about a child exploitation trial. He was briefly jailed, and while his case was appealed his supporters staged a mass demonstration in London in July that turned violent. It was the largest right-wing demonstration since the 1970s and it was funded by a think tank in the US called Middle East Forum.
One of the activists present was Avi Yemini who denounced Islam as a barbaric ideology and claimed it had taken over England. Another speaker was Carl Benjamin who was revealed to have sent the Labour MP Jess Phillips a tweet threatening rape. Benjamin has over 880,000 YouTube subscribers and has posted videos denouncing not just Islam but feminism. He has now enrolled as a member of UKIP.
Although Robinson depicts himself as a mere underdog whose campaign against Islam has been suppressed by the establishment, he is now receiving more funding from right-wing groups than anyone else in Britain.
His growing prominence led to him being appointed as an official adviser to the UKIP party by its leader Gerard Batten, who supported the Westminster demo. In response its previous, and immensely popular leader, Nigel Farage resigned from the party after 25 years of active support, along with other prominent members.
The dramatic rise of Robinson from a marginal far-right fringe to now being followed by millions across the world shows the worrying growth of the far-right in current politics. He is now getting financial support from think tanks in the USA and Australia. This was revealed following an investigation by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, commissioned by the Guardian newspaper, that forty percent of the tweets supporting Robinson came from the US as opposed to only thirty percent from the UK. Others were also flooding in from Holland, Canada and nine other countries.
Robinson admits he has received several hundred thousand pounds in donations, but the Guardian investigation raised disturbing issues about the groups funding him. The US think tank Middle East Forum admits it has given $60,000 to support his legal fees and the London demo. The Guardian also revealed that the Middle East Forum, and other groups that supported Robinson, have themselves received nearly $5 million from four US foundations. A key supporter of these foundations is New York department store heiress, Nina Rosenwald, who gave $2.9 million. She is the president of the Gatestone Institute which regularly runs articles supporting Robinson online. Gatestone is also supported by the family of Robert Mercer, a hedge fund boss who was a key funder of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.The Foundation of Richard Mellon Scaife, a late billionaire who donated generously to conservative causes, gave $575,000 to the David Horowitz Freedom Centre, which frequently runs articles supporting Robinson.
The idea that American billionaires can impact on our politics in any way is profoundly wrong and the UK government should pass a law to ban all foreign funding in our domestic politics.
Two of the richest Americans, David and Charles Koch, who are worth $120 billion have not been seen before to be funding organisations in Britain but the Guardian’s George Monbiot revealed on December 7 that the Charles Koch Foundation had transferred money to a company that appears to be the US funding arm of a British organisation funding a magazine called Spiked.
The politics of Charles Koch were revealed back in 1978 when he wrote: “Our movement must destroy the prevalent statist paradigm.” He argues for lower taxes and deregulating businesses, yet his own company has faced massive fines for illegal emissions, ammonia pollution and oil spills. The company was found guilty in 1999 of using a corroded pipeline carrying butane which exploded and killed two people.
The Koch brothers set up the Mercatus Centre, the Cato Institute and Americans For Prosperity and over the years they have spent hundred of millions of dollars supporting those organisations that share their right-wing views. They provided vital support for the Tea Party but then moved on to support Trump by funding his transition team. Not surprisingly Trump’s administration has dramatically reduced taxes on large corporations such as those owned by the Koch brothers.
In the last two years the Charles Koch Foundation gave $300,000 to support Spiked which has denounced George Soros, Jeremy Corbyn and Black Lives Matter. It also denounced those campaigning for feminism and environmental issues. It provides strong support for the far-right columnist Katie Hopkins, Tommy Robinson, Aaron Banks, Toby Young and Viktor Orban (Hungary’s right-wing prime minister). It has consistently supported a hard Brexit without a deal.
It’s not illegal for Tommy Robinson to be getting funding from non-British political organisations but it could have a major impact on British politics. Robinson is a hard-line supporter of Brexit and Britain remains deeply divided on this crucial issue. If Robinson has enough money to mobilise his supporters to increase pressure on MPs to leave Europe without a deal the consequences for our economy could be severely damaging and lead to a surge of support for the far-right as unemployment increases following Brexit.
In the last ten years the thousand richest families in Britain have seen their wealth double while working class and middle class families have struggled to cope with savage cuts in services, and wages not keeping up with inflation. The same has happened in the USA and across the world, giant corporations have seen their profits continue to grow. It’s no surprise that the super-rich are spending hundreds of millions to influence government policies and it’s time that we campaign to force our governments to make this illegal, and supporting figures like Tommy Robinson needs to be stopped.
The debate over when the government should be allowed to seize private property is older than the U.S. government itself.
Written by Texas Tribune
(TT) — In February 2016, prosecutors in Houston filed a lawsuit against a truck: State of Texas vs. One 2003 Chevrolet Silverado.
Houston police had seized the vehicle after surveilling its driver, Macario Hernandez, and pulling him over after he left his house. They took the truck to court, hoping to keep it or sell it at auction to fund their operations, claiming the vehicle was known to be involved in the drug trade.
But the truck’s owner, Oralia Rodriguez, was never charged with a crime. She wasn’t at the scene when officers pulled over Hernandez, her son, and found 13.5 grams of marijuana in his pocket. In fact, Rodriguez said she had recently loaned him the car so he could drive his pregnant girlfriend to the doctor. The girlfriend was having difficulty with her pregnancy and was at risk of losing the baby, Rodriguez said. She was desperate not to lose her truck, which had recently had new tires installed among other repairs, which she was still working to pay off.
“My sole intention was to help out. … Now I am in this situation of losing what I have worked very hard for,” she wrote to local prosecutors. “I am begging you please allow me to have my truck back.”
Seven weeks after police pulled over the truck, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office resolved the suit and agreed to release the vehicle back to Rodriguez, on the condition that she never loan it to Hernandez. But Rodriguez still had to pay $1,600 to get her truck back, plus any towing and storage fees it had accumulated over the course of the lawsuit. (Hernandez pleaded guilty to delivering drugs and spent several months in jail.)
What happened to Rodriguez was perfectly legal. Under a process known as civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement can take cash and property they believe to be related to criminal activity, even if the person involved is never charged with a crime. Prosecutors then file suit against the property, and if successful, police may keep much of it for their own purposes.
Civil asset forfeiture is a tool supported by law enforcement leaders, who say it is necessary for fighting crime, but panned by both liberals and conservatives who see it as a violation of Americans’ civil liberties and sometimes refer to it as “policing for profit.” It’s a longstanding, nationwide practice that has regained steam under the Trump administration but faces constitutional challenges in court.
When police seize a person’s property, the onus falls on the owner to prove the property was “innocent,” or not linked to a crime. If a person doesn’t fight the seizure in court — which is what happens in the majority of cases — they lose their property automatically. Many cases involve property worth no more than a few thousand dollars, and attorneys’ fees can end up being more costly than the value of the property itself.
Last year alone, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors throughout Texas grew their coffers more than $50 million by seizing cash, cars, jewelry, clothing, art and other property they claimed were linked to a crime. That includes property seized under both criminal forfeiture — which requires someone to first be found guilty of a crime — and civil forfeiture, which allows the state to sue the property itself and doesn’t require a criminal charge. The Texas Attorney General’s Office, which tracks these figures, does not distinguish between the two.
How much property and money was seized from people, like Rodriguez, who weren’t charged with any crime? That information isn’t collected in any meaningful way in Texas, and state lawmakers, at the urging of prosecutors and law enforcement, have resisted attempts to report more detailed information about asset forfeiture to the public.
“One wonders if our colonial ancestors, transported to 2014, would be astonished — watching government seize, then sell, the property of guiltless citizens who have not been charged with any crime, much less convicted of one,” former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, a Republican who has since been promoted to a federal appeals court by President Donald Trump, wrote in 2014. “A generation ago in America, asset forfeiture was limited to wresting ill-gotten gains from violent criminals. Today, it has a distinctive ‘Alice in Wonderland’ flavor, victimizing innocent citizens who’ve done nothing wrong.”
Extreme cases of abuse have occasionally grabbed the attention of the public and of lawmakers, who in 2011 made a rare move to rein in police seizures. That followed a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union a few years before, which alleged that police in the tiny East Texas town of Tenaha were conducting “highway robbery” by shaking down drivers — primarily people of color — for cash under threat of jail time. The suit accused law enforcement in Tenaha of threatening to have children removed from their families if the drivers they’d stopped on U.S. Highway 59 didn’t sign waivers allowing officers to seize their property without a court proceeding.
From 2006 to 2008, officers in Tenaha seized approximately $3 million from at least 140 people, according to the lawsuit, which was ultimately settled with local law enforcement not admitting to wrongdoing. With the lawsuit in the news, Gov. Rick Perry in 2011 signed legislation prohibiting the use of such waivers, forcing all forfeitures to go through court.
The law also limited how law enforcement can spend the money they seize, banning officials from using it to pay for things like margarita machines, as former Montgomery County District Attorney Michael McDougal did in 2005 — or trips to Hawaii, as a former Hill Country district attorney, Ron Sutton, did from 2002 to 2007. The legislation passed just months after a former South Texas district attorney pleaded guilty to misappropriating more than $2 million in seized funds, paying $1.2 million in bonuses to three secretaries and another $81,000 to himself.
The 2011 law faced almost no opposition, but some Democrats and Republicans at the Texas Capitol have called for further reforms to an asset forfeiture system they believe is inherently abusive. Lawmakers on the left cite forfeiture’s disproportionate effects on low-income people of color who can’t go to court to fight back. Those on the right cry out against government overreach that infringes on private property rights and snubs due process.
In recent years, however, most efforts to change the system have fallen flat at the Capitol. Sheriffs, prosecutors and police have urged lawmakers not to further limit a power they say is crucial to their ability to fight crime and drug cartels — and which they say was already cleaned up by the 2011 law. Law enforcement officials say taking money and drugs linked to cartels is one of the most effective methods they have to fight them.
“We’re sitting here at the tip of the spear of cartel activity, and we need asset forfeiture as a tool,” Jackson County Sheriff A. J. “Andy” Louderback said. “It’s a viable tool that we’re not misusing. … There’s accountability in the system that’s been there for a very long time.”
The battle over reform will continue in January when the Texas Legislature convenes for its biennial session. At least two lawmakers have already filed bills that would limit asset forfeiture’s scope, and the Texas Republican Party asked lawmakers to abolish asset forfeiture without a criminal conviction in their 2018 platform. Still, reformers face long odds: Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have remained almost completely silent on the issue, and after last month’s elections, advocates lost one of their most vocal Republican allies in the Texas Senate.
Outgoing state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, was so incensed about civil asset forfeiture that she led a press conference early in the 2017 legislative session to announce that a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers was ready to reform the practice. They filed a slew of bills that proposed significant changes to police power, ranging from a total abolition of civil asset forfeiture — by requiring a person to be found guilty of a crime before their property can be forfeited — to requiring more disclosures from law enforcement agencies about how and when they use it.
Other bills sought to help people whose property was seized, such as by making the government pay for any lawyer or court fees if the state loses or drops the case. Another proposal would have placed the burden of proof on law enforcement, rather than on property owners fighting to reclaim their possessions.
“Unknown to many, including some lawmakers, a great threat to the property rights of Texans is staring us right in the face,” said Burton, who lost her re-election bid in November. “The seizing and keeping of an individual’s property without a criminal conviction is in opposition to everything this country was founded upon, and it must change.”
But as Burton discovered as the legislative session unfolded, any effort to rein in asset forfeiture faces strident opposition from law enforcement and local prosecutors — groups that most Texas legislators don’t like to publicly challenge.
“Many times in my law enforcement career, we could not have been effective in doing away with gangs, drug cartels and whatever without the civil asset forfeiture,” Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said during the only committee hearing held to discuss civil asset forfeiture bills in the 2017 legislative session. “Many times forfeiting civil assets is the only way you’re going to get to the kingpin of the operation.”
At least 15 asset forfeiture reform bills were filed in the House or Senate last year. But not a single bill made it onto the floor for debate. The chairwoman of the committee to which many of the Senate bills were referred, state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, didn’t even hold a hearing on her own bill. (Huffman declined to say why but said she plans to file the same bill again next year.)
“The failure of forfeiture reform boils down to legislative gamesmanship and strategy, not a debate on the merits,” said Arif Panju, an anti-forfeiture advocate at the libertarian Institute for Justice, whose downtown Austin office is decorated with a “Don’t Tread on Me” poster signed by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky libertarian. “I would be shocked if folks did not recognize this as a problem at the highest levels of government.”
Yet, at the highest levels of government, President Donald Trump and his recently departed attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have spoken favorably of civil asset forfeiture, with Trump even telling a Texas sheriff last year he could “destroy” the career of an unspecified state senator who wanted to end the practice. Sessions, while at the helm of the U.S. Department of Justice, resurrected a federal policy intended to increase seizures throughout the country, though he did modify it to avoid improper forfeitures.
“With care — we’ve gotta be careful — and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures,” Sessions said in July 2017.
The debate over when the government should be allowed to seize private property is older than the U.S. government itself — and it helped spark a revolution. The British Crown’s abuse of “writs of assistance,” which allowed customs officials to seize what they considered contraband from homes and suspected pirate ships, outraged American colonials so much that the Founding Fathers counted it among the grievances justifying a break from Britain.
John Adams wrote that anti-forfeiture opinion “breathed into this nation the breath of life” and was one reason “the child of Independence was born,” according to historian Maurice Henry Smith.
After the U.S. won independence, the new federal government promptly gave law enforcement the same power to seize private property, as a tool for fighting crime. But historians believe the power was only infrequently used until Prohibition, when police seized vehicles used to transport alcohol. Most legal scholars agree that the current era of asset forfeiture began in the 1980s, ushered in by the war on drugs.
In 1984, the U.S. Comprehensive Crime Control Act gave federal law enforcement broad, unprecedented authority to seize property used to “facilitate” a drug offense. Suddenly, police needed to find only a loose link between a piece of property and an alleged criminal act.
The amount of money government agencies brought in through forfeiture skyrocketed in the following decades. In 1986, the U.S. Department of Justice’s asset forfeiture fund took in $93.7 million, according to the Institute for Justice. By 2014, annual deposits into the fund reached $4.5 billion.
Many states followed suit, passing their own permissive forfeiture laws, and the money flowed into local agencies. Police departments, sheriff’s offices and local prosecutors came to depend on the sale of seized property for a significant chunk of their annual budgets. In Harris County, home to Houston, the local district attorney’s office received forfeiture funds worth about 5 percent of its budget in 2017.
In some small towns, the seizures became an outright windfall. Take Reeves County, which has fewer than 20,000 residents and straddles two West Texas highways. In 2012, the value of seized assets was 15 times more than the local prosecutor’s annual budget, according to a report funded by the Texas Office of Court Administration.
Police and prosecutors say the money helps pay for their operating costs, such as computers, vehicles, training and travel, as well as crucial crime-fighting operations, like paying informants. They say the current system is working as intended.
“We are a decade removed from the last big, quote, so-called abuse in Texas. And it was something that was directly addressed by the Legislature,” said Shannon Edmonds, the governmental relations director for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.
But reform advocates say that while the 2011 legislation was an improvement, it didn’t address what they see as civil asset forfeiture’s underlying potential for abuse.
Derek Cohen, a forfeiture reform advocate with the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said the 2011 bill “patched 25 percent of the holes in our boat.”
The 2011 reforms required agencies that seize citizens’ property to disclose how they spend money they get through seizures — but they don’t have to list what they seized in each case, what offense prompted the seizure and whether they filed a criminal charge or obtained a conviction against the property’s owner.
Several bills filed in recent years have sought to peel back the veil on police seizures by requiring agencies to report that information to the state, but none has ever come close to passing out of the Texas Legislature.
Edmonds said the extra reporting would be too burdensome, taking time and money away from law enforcement’s core mission. Individual asset forfeiture cases are public record, and members of the public are welcome to conduct their own studies, he said.
“The cost outweighs the actual benefit that you’re gonna get” from the reporting requirements, Edmonds said. “The idea that it’s gonna reveal all this great information is kind of a false promise.”
Other proposed legislation would have raised the legal bar for seizing property. Currently, government agencies only have to show that what they seized was more likely than not tied to criminal activity — a standard lower than the criminal bar of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Those bills failed to pass, too.
Steve Jumes, a Fort Worth attorney who represents clients who have had property seized under civil asset forfeiture, said the majority of cases he sees involve low-level drug offenses in which the value of property seized greatly outweighs the value of the drugs themselves. He described the case of a woman whose husband got caught in possession of drugs worth less than $500. The husband was criminally charged and ended up going to prison, but police also seized the truck he’d been driving when he was arrested.
The man’s wife, who was pregnant, needed the truck for medical appointments and to take her children to day care. Ultimately, lawyers negotiated an agreement in which the woman could buy the truck back from the police department at a reduced price.
“Unfortunately, that’s what success looks like in this landscape,” Jumes said.
Last year, state Reps. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, and Terry Canales, D-Edinburg — who stand on opposite sides of the political spectrum — filed legislation to put more onus on the state when pursuing asset forfeiture cases. Schaefer wanted to flip the burden of proof from an uninvolved property owner, like Rodriguez, to the state. He said the current system puts the burden on people to “prove a negative” — that the property is innocent and the owner was unaware of criminal activity.
“Now they’re in court and they’ve got to pay an attorney to figure all this out,” he told lawmakers during the lone 2017 legislative hearing relating to civil asset forfeiture.
Canales sought to raise the bar the state has to meet before it can claim the property. He also wanted to require the prosecution to pay all fees if the owner proved the property wasn’t involved in criminal activity.
“If you make it loser pays, that would rein in much of the abuse that’s going on because the first time that the state’s got to cut a check, they’re going to realize that they themselves can incur liability for doing it wrong,” Canales said. “But as it stands, they’ve got a free ticket to ride. Why wouldn’t they?”
Edmonds said such proposals seek to solve a nonexistent problem and that prosecutors work with innocent owners to return their property.
“People are not showing up to contest [asset seizures] because they did it,” he said. “These people are not coming to court and they’re not coming to the Capitol, so how can we gauge the validity of their argument if they never show up to either place?”
At the legislative hearing, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Angela Beavers testified that only four or five of the county’s up to 1,000 forfeiture cases went to trial last year. State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said so few people fight government seizures because they don’t know how to take on the government without a lawyer, a luxury many can’t afford.
“The ones that did got lawyers like me and like Chairman Canales … they got out of it, and they got their money back,” Dutton said. Both lawmakers are also attorneys and have represented clients in forfeiture cases.
The most controversial legislative effort is complete abolition of civil asset forfeiture — which would require law enforcement to secure a criminal conviction before they can keep seized property, rather than simply claiming that property was more than likely connected to a suspected crime.
Burton, a Republican, and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a long-serving Democrat, filed identical bills last year to do just that. Both died in committee.
Prosecutors, in testimony at the 2017 legislative hearing, responded with scenarios they said exposed shortcomings in the reformers’ proposals. A criminal case is often dropped against a person for reasons unrelated to their guilt — for example, the defendant might plead guilty in another case — but that doesn’t mean the suspected drug money should be returned to that person, Beavers said. A truck found with a hidden compartment containing millions of dollars, she said, might not result in an arrest if police don’t know if the driver was aware of the compartment — even if officers had every reason to believe that money was going to a drug cartel.
“In these cases, asset forfeiture is the key, or virtually the only, way to fight the criminals at the top of the organization,” Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner told the Tribune.
Dutton argued at the hearing that prosecutors were intentionally ignoring other laws or exceptions that could allow them to seize property in such a case. For example, advocates pointed to police authority to seize abandoned property.
“You’re making up an example that’s false. … You know and I know it’s false,” Dutton told Beavers during her testimony.
Canales, chair of the House subcommittee that held the hearing last year, said he would continue to fight for reforms to a practice he calls “un-American.” He has already filed bills on the issue for the 2019 session.
“The natural enemy of any sort of civil asset forfeiture reform is going to be law enforcement itself because of the amount of money that they receive,” he said. “It’s almost like we’ve turned to the dark side.”
But without support from Texas’ Republican leadership, advocates for reform worry that 2019 will look a lot like 2017: lots of bills that gain no traction. Neither Gov. Abbott nor Lt. Gov. Patrick responded to emailed questions for this story. In the past, Abbott has said asset forfeiture should be used to pay for border security operations.
“We have not seen any sort of public comment that would make me think that this would be a priority item for them,” Cohen said.
On that point, at least, forfeiture supporters and opponents can agree.
“I can tell you this, we rarely get asked about this issue by legislators,” Edmonds said.