Trump, Jokingly, Offers to 'Destroy' Texas State Senator on Behalf of Sheriffs

by | February 8, 2017

By Asher Price

President Donald Trump offered to "destroy" the career of an unnamed Texas state senator after a North Texas sheriff complained about the senator at a White House meeting Tuesday.

In a twist illuminating the complicated politics that can pit law-and-order conservatives against civil libertarians, the state senator on Trump's hit list might just be an eager supporter of the president.

During a roundtable discussion with Trump, Rockwall County Sheriff Harold Eavenson told Trump that a state senator, whom the sheriff declined to name, wanted to introduce legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to get a conviction before seizing a suspected offender's assets.

"Can you believe that?" Trump interjected.

The sheriff said he told the state senator the drug cartels would "build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation (passed)."

"Who is the state senator?" Trump asked. "Do you want to give his name? We'll destroy his career."

The room, which included reporters, White House staffers and a few other sheriffs from around the country, erupted in laughter.

The exchange took place during a listening session with officials from the National Sheriffs' Association -- Eavenson is vice president of the organization.

Law enforcement agencies often rely on the seizure of assets in criminal cases to supplement budgets. According to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian, Virginia public-interest law firm, an average of $41.5 million a year from forfeitures goes into local law enforcement budgets across Texas.

State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, who was elected in 2014 with the support of the tea party and represents Rockwall County, told constituents before the legislative session that he was considering filing a bill that would require that property cannot be forfeited without a criminal conviction.

Hall, who hasn't yet filed an asset forfeiture bill this session, didn't respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.

He would make an unlikely target for Trump: Hall visited Washington for Trump's inauguration and posted on his Facebook page, "We have a chance to move forward in unity to 'Make America Great Again.'" The post also included a photo of him next to Trump, both giving a thumbs-up.

After Trump's declaration on Tuesday morning, some state senators circulated a draft resolution to "encourage the president of the United States to refrain from threatening elected officials," and the Capitol press corps busily tried to pin down the identity of the unnamed state senator.

At least three state senators have filed bills this session aimed at limiting civil asset forfeitures. Eavenson referred to the senator as male, eliminating state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, who filed Senate Bill 380, which would bar asset forfeiture without a criminal conviction.

Eavenson told the American-Statesman he was referring neither to state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, co-sponsor of Senate Bill 156, which aims to limit the seizing of civil assets by law enforcement, nor to state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, who has proposed a pair of measures that would require the reporting of more information related to the "questionable practice of seizing people's belongings without even charging them with a crime."

Eavenson sidestepped a Statesman query about Hall.

"My point was to emphasize how much sheriffs opposed this philosophy (bill) which if passed would hurt law enforcement and benefit the cartel," he said in an email. "It was not meant in a personal manner. It just would not be good for law enforcement nor for our citizens."

As they have done on efforts to ban red light cameras, promoted as catching careless drivers and boosting local governments' coffers, tea partyers like Hall have teamed up with Democrats to limit civil asset forfeitures.

But the bipartisan effort has won little traction.

Last year, the Texas Supreme Court ruled law enforcement can seize private property that was used in the commission of a crime, even if evidence of wrongdoing was illegally obtained by police.

The ruling rejected arguments that letting officers benefit from improper searches and similar activity would encourage "policing for profit" because law enforcement can sell or reuse the seized property. Such concerns, along with fears that the process doesn't adequately protect constitutional rights, have prompted a coalition of conservatives, civil rights groups, libertarians and others to press for reforms to asset forfeiture.

In 2015, the National Sheriffs' Association said it was "deeply disappointed" by Obama administration efforts to rein in the civil asset forfeiture reach of law enforcement.

Civil asset forfeiture limits "the reach of criminal enterprises all over the country and with great success," the association's then-president, John Aubrey, said at the time. "These seizures often fund state and local agency participation in drug task forces and other joint efforts."

(c)2017 Austin American-Statesman, Texas