DALLAS — President Donald Trump on Tuesday offered to “destroy” the career of a Texas state senator after a sheriff complained about the lawmaker at a White House meeting.
Trump was speaking with representatives from the National Sheriff’s Association. Sheriff Harold Eavenson mentioned an unnamed state senator, who he said has introduced legislation that restricts law enforcement powers to seize money, drugs, and personal property. The practice is known as civil-asset forfeiture.
“We’ve got a state senator in Texas who was talking about introducing legislation to require a conviction before we can receive that forfeiture money,” Eavenson said. “And I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”
“Can you believe that?” Trump said, shaking his head. “Want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career.”
Eavenson declined to name the senator but was likely was referring to Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, who is a coauthor on a bill this session requiring convictions for asset forfeiture. The measure’s sponsor is Republican Konni Burton, a woman. (After the Trump meeting, Eavenson reiterated the senator he was referring to is male.)
Hinojosa, a Democrat, introduced a measure last November that would restrict law enforcement from accessing assets until the owner has been convicted of a crime. (In 2015, a similar bill from Hinojosa died in committee.) On Monday, Hinojosa was formally added as an author to Senate Bill 380, which was introduced by Burton. It was referred to the Senate Affairs Committee last week, according to the Senate Journal.
Hinojosa told reporters at the Capitol: "I don’t know the sheriff. I never met the sheriff."
But Eavenson’s comments almost surely referenced Hinojosa. Only state Senator Bob Hall, who represents Rockwall County, has spoken publicly recently about reforming civil asset forfeiture, but he doesn’t have any pending legislation on it.
Speculation also centered on state Senator Don Huffines, who has introduced two bills that would require annual audits of asset forfeiture, but they do not require convictions. The Dallas Morning News reported on Tuesday afternoon that Huffines didn’t believe Eavenson was referring to him.
Hinojosa did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Hours after the meeting, Eavenson wrote on his Facebook page, "My objective was to make a point of the lack of logic to such a position. It was also to make the point public to possibly benefit law enforcement."
He added, "My personal opinion is that such a bill if were to pass would benefit the cartels and damage law enforcement."
Capt. Greg Welch, spokesman for the sheriff's office, told The Daily Beast that the sheriff didn't plan on identifying the senator mentioned at the White House.
"He's not going to call out any senator in Texas, and he's not going to mention the senator by name," Welch said.
The White House said late Tuesday afternoon that Trump was only "joking" during the National Sheriff's Association meeting.
In many cases, law enforcement agencies are able to receive funds, like money seized from a suspected drug dealer, immediately following an arrest but before a conviction. Burton told The Texas Observer that she believes the practice, as it stands now, “flies in the face” of the U.S. Constitution. She also said that she’d already gotten pushback from several law enforcement officials.
“Right now, law enforcement can seize property under civil law, and it denies people their basic rights,” Burton, a staunch conservative, told The Observer last week. “There’s a basic problem with this process that I want to correct.”
The seizure of money and personal property before a person is convicted of a crime is part of the reason that civil asset forfeiture has become such a contentious issue. In the Lone Star State, $41.5 million per year on average is fed into county law enforcement budgets through civil forfeitures. Critics of the practice say that the program nets too much money and property from non-criminals, who then must engage in months and sometimes years-long battles to get their property back.
"We are using civil forfeiture to fill gaps in our public safety funding," said Matt Simpson, Senior Policy Strategist for the ACLU of Texas. "But it's not a reliable funding source."
Simpson noted that civil asset forfeiture is uniquely bipartisan in Texas because it's a "key liberty issue."
"The power of the state to take your property with no process or protection sets off some major red flags for Republicans that lean libertarian," he said. "The government shouldn't be able to take your property without some kind of robust protections."
Hinojosa has been a member of the state legislature since 1981, when he was first voted into the House of Representatives, and became a state senator in 2003. Before he was elected to public office, Hinojosa worked for the Legal Aid Society of Nueces County and later as an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Texas. Hinojosa also served in Vietnam as a Marine.
Texas Monthly named Hinojosa to their “Best Legislators” list in 2013, noting that he’s helped pass several historic pieces of legislation, in addition to playing an important role in passing bread-and-butter measures like budget resolutions.
“He has long made a virtue of compromise,” the Monthly wrote, “and although his own party has occasionally been frustrated that he doesn’t fight harder, the result is that the other party trusts him.”