On May 6 former south Texas District Attorney Joe Frank Garza was sentenced to six months in jail, plus 10 years probation and repayment of $2.1 in restitution, for illegally using over $2 million in asset forfeiture funds to provide cash bonuses to himself and three of his selected employees during his term as district attorney for Brooks and Jim Wells counties from 2002 through 2008. Garza lost a bid for another term following a feature article published in the May 16, 2008 edition of the Texas Observer, in which Austin-based writer Jan Reid detailed Highway Robbery—One man’s painful journey through South Texas’ addiction to asset forfeiture.
When a Texas Grand Jury indicted him in August 2010, Garza admitted spending the money but claimed that he had done nothing illegal. After all, bogus traffic stops and shake downs on south Texas highways and the resulting “agreed judgments” signed under threat of arrest, which waived all rights to contest forfeiture of any and all currency in their possession, had enabled law enforcement in these tax poor counties to pay for just about everything, including salaries, vehicles, guns and gear, without any judicial procedures whatsoever. Each county DA has his own little fiefdom without oversight, much like Robin Hood’s nameless adversary, the Sherriff of Nottingham, who was more than likely a compilation of many tales of corrupt sheriffs throughout old England who were appointed by the king to “farm” the county by seizing property from anybody they cared to label “outlaw.”
For years Garza loudly proclaimed his innocence, stating that Texas asset forfeiture laws allowed him to spend confiscated money however he saw fit – until June 2009 when he avoided several felony charges by accepting an agreement to plead guilty to illegally awarding himself and his three secretaries $2.16 million in bonuses – out of the $4.2 million derived from confiscated funds that he spent on trips to Las Vegas seminars and other perks. Poor Garza – how was he to know that he would have to serve jail time, lose his license to practice law and repay millions of dollars for simply following the standard operating procedure of policing for profit?
As the investigative team concluded in Policing For Profit: The Drug War’s Hidden Economic Agenda, one of several studies examining the perversion of law enforcement priorities resulting from an ever-increasing reliance on seizing plunder for their agencies, “When Congress fundamentally restructured the forfeiture laws by allowing agencies to keep most of the assets they seize, it did so without considering the very substantial costs of these amendments to both the public welfare and the justice system.”