During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly vowed to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border ― and to make Mexico pay for it.
Reality set in quickly after Trump became president. Neither Mexico nor U.S. taxpayers appear interested in putting up the money, which has left Republican lawmakers in Congress and around the nation scrambling to find ways to finance the project.
On Thursday, Oklahoma state Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R) floated a novel idea: Build the wall using funds taken though civil asset forfeiture ― a controversial practice that allows police to permanently confiscate property they suspect is tied to crime and then funnel the money back to department coffers.
Because the property itself is supposedly “guilty” in these cases, cops can seize vehicles, jewelry, houses and, most commonly, cash, without ever charging the owner with a crime. In other words, they’re free to take property from legally innocent people.
Cleveland’s plan highlights a key divide in the raging debate over civil forfeiture. Supporters defend the practice as a crime-fighting tool that allows law enforcement to target the proceeds of illegal activity, even when they don’t have direct evidence of wrongdoing. If cops in Oklahoma pull over a car and find thousands of dollars in cash, for example, they can seize it as “drug money,” even if there’s no contraband in the car. The driver must then fight a difficult and often costly battle to prove that it came from a legal source. If he or she can’t, police will take the cash for good.
To people like Cleveland, civil forfeiture is all about giving law enforcement a weapon to crack down on Mexican cartels trafficking in Oklahoma.
“This money is drug money,” Cleveland said in a release. “The vast majority of it is either coming from Mexico or headed there. By redirecting this cash to construction efforts, Mexico will be paying for the wall just as promised.”
The basic premise ― make Mexican “criminals” pay to stop Mexican crime from coming into the U.S. ― sounds similar to a proposal Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced earlier this week. Cruz’s plan would fund the wall using assets seized from Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Mexican cartel boss extradited to the U.S. earlier this year.
While Cruz wants to use money taken through criminal forfeiture, dependent on Chapo’s conviction, Cleveland is proposing using money taken through civil forfeiture ― from people who have never been found guilty of a crime.
Critics of civil forfeiture say Cleveland’s plan drastically oversimplifies the issue. With such a direct financial incentive for police to seize property and such weak protections for property owners, opponents argue that officers routinely abuse the practice, ensnaring innocent people along with supposed Mexican drug dealers.
A 2015 analysis of civil forfeiture in Oklahoma also found that police disproportionately seize property from Hispanics, blacks and other racial or ethnic minorities, raising concerns that officers were engaging in racial profiling.
Last year, deputies in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, seized $53,000 from the manager of a Burmese Christian rock band in the belief that he was involved in the drug trade. After getting pro bono representation from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm that argues forfeiture should require a criminal conviction, the manager was able to recover the money, which included donations to an orphanage and money from the musical group’s ticket and merchandise sales.
Citing the need to protect people’s due process and property rights, lawmakers in Oklahoma have been pushing to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. Progress has been minimal so far, and Cleveland’s plan suggests that many of these concerns are still falling on deaf ears.
“However the money is spent, civil forfeiture is wrong,” said Robert Johnson, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, in an email to HuffPost. “Law enforcement takes money from innocent people, not convicted of any crime, and forces them to prove their own innocence to get the money back. That’s unconstitutional, regardless of whether the money is used for a margarita machine, a new car, or a border wall.”
Cleveland says he hopes to officially introduce his proposal before the end of the current legislative session.