Local law enforcement agencies seized more than $1.3 million in cash between 2019 and 2021 from suspected drug dealers and suspected illegal gambling establishments, allowing them to invest in technology and equipment upgrades.
According to records obtained from the Hector County District Attorney’s Office through the Texas Public Information Act, the Odessa Police Department completed 90 percent of its seizures and received a total of $1.18 million. Over the three-year period, the Hector County Sheriff’s Office forfeited less than $81,000, while DPS collected just over $48,000.
Under Texas law, law enforcement officers can seize cash and property they believe to be the ill-gotten gains of criminal activity. Hector County District Attorney Dusty Gallivan was then ordered to file a civil forfeiture lawsuit in district court, giving cash and property owners a chance to argue that the cash and property were the result of illegal activity.
“We never have hearings on these cases because they don’t usually come up,” Gallivan said.
The confiscation of property and cash and the filing of forfeiture lawsuits have been controversial in other jurisdictions, but Gallivan said he would not file a forfeiture lawsuit unless criminal charges have been brought against the defendant, or his office is about to file one.
“Legally, it doesn’t have to be a conviction,” Gallivan said. “My policy is that we do not seize funds or property unless there is a related criminal case. The case may not be resolved, but both in the state system and in the federal system, they have been charged with something because occasionally You get drug cases and they confiscate the money, but it’s not a huge amount. The FBI wants to deal with it, but the drug content is high enough that the FBI wants to deal with it. So the criminal case goes to the Commonwealth, and we take confiscation.”
He said it was only fair to file when there was a criminal case.
“I can’t break into your house and steal your TV and then, when they arrest me for it, keep your TV. So I mean, any other crime is the same, but not all prosecutors have that philosophy ,”He says. “I can’t speak for everyone across the state. That’s how we do it here.”
Law enforcement agencies have also seized vehicles, televisions, drones, power tools and sound bars in recent years, according to records. OPD records show that some vehicles have been used by the secret police and the rest of the property has been auctioned off.
Records show that while the vast majority of seizures were related to drug cases, this was not the case in terms of the percentage of cash seized.
In 2019, 51% of the cash seized by OPD was related to two illegal gambling cases. The other 16 cases involved drugs.
In 2020, OPD brought 34 drug cases, including one for money laundering, and seized nearly $44,000. Overall, OPD forfeited $609,428 that year.
In 2021, 50 forfeiture cases involving OPD were filed, and about 30% of the $421,589 seized was related to five illegal gambling cases. Seven of the 50 cases involved theft, while the rest were drug cases, records show.
Approximately $84,000 was seized in a catalytic converter theft, and nearly $35,000 was seized from two individuals charged with illegally selling buyer tags (temporary motor vehicle registration tags). In the third case, more than $18,000 was confiscated from a man accused of selling catalytic converters and drugs, records show.
Proving that their property and cash are not ill-gotten gains can be difficult, Gallivan said.
“It depends. For example, we had some people, the game room, who were just employees, and the police took money from their wallets. Well, we refunded the money, because in my opinion, it was clearly not a gain, Even though it was their salary and indirectly from illicit earnings. They were not earned illegally. The money they earned was part of their salary, so we returned that money,” Gallivan said.
Gallivan said he doesn’t believe the fact that clandestine gaming room operations often result in large cash forfeitures motivates law enforcement to conduct such operations.
“But you know, with any criminal business, that’s the fastest way to try and shut them down. You go after their money. If they can’t make money or keep it, they’re not going to stay in business,” Gallivan said.
Gallivan said there are strict rules about how law enforcement agencies can use the cash they seize or get after the seized property is auctioned off.
He said his office received a portion of the forfeited cash, but a zero percentage of the auction proceeds, which was used for technology upgrades, Surface laptops and training.
“We use it to keep our computers up to date, and we have Surfaces. We need the ability to work from home because of COVID, and that’s where Surfaces comes in. We currently have two remote employees, we actually just hired Two other remote workers, so they only have Surfaces,” Gallivan said.
Records obtained from OPD through a TPIA request show that the department also spent its confiscated funds on technology.
“There are very limited things you can actually use these funds for,” said OPD chief Mike Gerke. “You can’t use it to build a new building. I can’t fly to Mexico for vacation. None of that. Just equipment.”
Gerke is a firm believer that intelligence-led policing will result in police being deployed to areas where data shows crime is taking place. In recent years, the department has invested in drones, incident management cameras monitored in the city’s real-time intelligence centers, Flock security cameras that read license plates, and CloudGavel, an electronic search warrant system that allows officials and judges to create, review and Arrest warrants and search warrants are processed on-site.
When asked about the magnitude of Odessa’s drug problem, Goek said we are no different from other communities.
“I would say, like any other community in America, there are drug dealers in Odessa, and we target those people. It’s part of our Intel-led policing strategy because everything is related, right? So drug dealers, violent crime, and property crime, are overwhelmingly interconnected,” said Geck. “So our strategy is to use any legal means to remove people who are causing social harm from our community. So if that means if we know someone may be violent and we can take drug cases against them , then we’ll go down that path. Does Odessa have a cartel connection? I would say any community in Texas could have a cartel connection.”
The most popular drug in Odessa right now is methamphetamine, followed by marijuana, Gerke said. Most cases are prosecuted in the federal court system, he said.
OPD’s Drug Enforcement Unit is made up of a sergeant and six investigators, but thanks to CloudGavel, Patrol officers now also play a role in drug investigations, Goek said.
“When we moved to intelligence-led policing, we really changed the role of patrols, so we gave them more power,” Geck said. “The job of a patrol officer is more than just driving around, writing a few tickets, doing reports. We actually have patrol officers getting (arrest) warrants and search warrants and sometimes things like that for stolen property and drugs.”