I told Scott Henson on Friday that there are two kinds of stories that reporters like to write or broadcast about crime more than any other in Travis County – or anywhere else for that matter:

  1. Innocent Person Gets Railroaded
  2. Incredibly Guilty Person Gets Off

These two archetypes allow for flashy headlines. Whether they fairly and accurately reflect what really happened can become victim to the overriding need to sell newspapers or garner TV ratings.

A huge front page story in the Austin American Statesman Sunday edition reads:

Travis (County) Returns Seized Money

Deals put cash back in many drug defendant’s pockets

I was at 7/11 buying a bagel and some milk and I literally watched someone walk past the stack of newspapers, do a double take, then walk back, grab the Statesman and put it on the counter with the rest of their items. I don’t know for a fact that the headline did it, but certainly it didn’t hurt.

At any rate, let’s award all possible points due on the Attention-Grabbing scale. Secondly, let’s look at the substance. Here’s how the story starts:

Travis County prosecutors have for at least a decade routinely given a portion of cash seized in felony drug investigations back to defendants, even though they said they were confident that the suspects had obtained the money by committing crimes.

Last year, the district attorney’s office returned nearly a quarter-million dollars to about 80 people, according to an analysis of records by the Austin American-Statesman. Those payments ranged from $500 to $14,700, records show.

Having deliberately written the first part of the story to outrage all of us law abiding folks the article eventually addresses the crux of the issue on the inside pages, although the title of the subsection suggests that the paper still misses the point “Civil Cases Can Get Drawn Out”:

Travis County First Assistant District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg… said prosecutors give priority to criminal cases instead of becoming involved in potentially lengthy civil proceedings, which can continue for months or, in some cases, years.

"It is a resource issue," Lehmberg said.

She said prosecutors might spend weeks preparing for civil trials by trying to prove the money was linked to a crime, and she thinks that in some instances they probably would be unable to meet the court’s rigorous standards of proof in civil cases.

However, Lehmberg said she and other prosecutors may consider not settling cases that involve large sums of seized money.

Translation? It’s not worth suing someone for $500. And sometimes it’s not worth suing someone for fourteen thousand dollars, to use the examples from the article’s first paragraph.

But large sums of money and property seized in a raid? Now you’re talking.

Take for example the 1996 US Supreme Court case which proclaimed that civil forfeitures were not punishment for double jeopardy purposes often cited as U.S. v. Ursery.

It’s other name? U.S. v. $405,089.23 In United States Currency, et al.

And here’s what the ‘et al.’ stood for in part:

  • $405,089.23 U.S. Currency
  • $8,929.93 U.S. Currency
  • $123,000.00 U.S. Currency;
  • 1 Bell 47 G-2 Helicopter,
  • 1 Shrimp Boat
  • 1 Piper Cherokee 6 Airplane
  • 138 Silver bars
  • 2 Jaguars
  • 4 other cars including a Porsche

As for the Statesman article? I’m pretty sure Austin taxpayers don’t want the Travis County District Attorney’s Office spending more than $499 suing someone over $500.

And let’s not forget this carefully worded part of the article about Lehmberg’s statement:

[S]he thinks that in some instances they probably would be unable to meet the court’s rigorous standards of proof in civil cases.

That’s right. Those unbelievably rigorous civil standards sometimes get in the way.

Translation? Sometimes there’s not even a fifty percent chance that the State would win the case so they settle for some of the money, rather than none of it.