Asset forfeiture, the process in which police seize the goods of suspected criminals, is happening on a massive scale in Texas.
Even when suspects are cleared, they often still lose their cars, cash, and other goods to police, a new investigation has found.
The Texas Tribune looked at 560 asset forfeiture cases in 2016, which led to the seizure of 100 vehicles and about $10 million in cash.
Reporters found suspects don’t even have to be charged with a crime for their assets to be taken.
The law enforcement agencies sue the property itself in civil court. Unlike in the criminal courts, property owners have no right to a court-appointed lawyer in the civil system.
The investigation found local and state law enforcement agencies in Texas bring in as much as $50 million a year through the asset forfeiture laws. However, the system remains opaque. While agencies report their profits from seizures, they do not have to release data relating to individual seizures and how often asset forfeiture is tied to a criminal charge.
The researchers found troubling cases in which the criminal system cleared defendants of charges but police and prosecutors kept their assets.
In Houston, for example, police seized $955 from a suspected gang member with a criminal history. They thought he was selling painkillers. Police dropped the charge when they found he had a valid prescription for the drugs. However, the money remained in the coffers of the local prosecutor and the police department.
The Tribune’s analysis found case seizures were as small as $290 and as high as $1.2 million. Police took a large number of vehicles along with property like Rolex watches, gold chains, and widescreen televisions.
About two out of every five asset forfeitures began with a traffic stop. In as many as 40 percent of the cases, people who lost property were not convicted of an offense.
Asset forfeiture has led to an outcry in Texas and unsuccessful moves for reform at the Texas legislature.
States including Arkansas and Michigan have adopted reforms, including requiring a criminal conviction for most asset forfeitures. Almost 20 states now require a criminal conviction before assets can be taken.
Recently, an asset forfeiture case in Houston ended up in a series of lawsuits when police seized a truck because they believed the driver was involved in the drug trade. However, the truck belonged to someone else.
Asset forfeiture is one of the most controversial aspects of the criminal process in the Lone Star State. If police seized your property or you are facing criminal charges, please call our Dallas defense team at (214) 720-9552.