Civil asset forfeiture occurs when police seize assets from people who are suspected of involvement in criminality. Nowhere is it more controversial than in Texas where people have lost millions of dollars in valuable assets without being charged with a crime.
Recently, the Texas Tribune reported on how police in Texas made $50 million by seizing property belonging to people in 2017. Civil asset forfeiture has led to a backlash from some legislators who will be taking up the issue in 2019.
The issues were highlighted by a court case brought two years ago over a 2003 Chevrolet Silverado, reported the Tribune.
Police in Houston seized the truck after pulling over its driver Macario Hernandez. Prosecutors filed a lawsuit to keep the vehicle in 2016.
Although police claimed the truck was involved in the drug trade, they never charged the owner of the truck Oralia Rodriguez.
She was not present when Houston police officers pulled over Hernandez, her son, and discovered 13.5 grams of marijuana in his pocket. Rodriguez said she loaned him the truck to transport his pregnant girlfriend to a medical appointment.
She wrote to Houston prosecutors, begging them to give her the truck back. A lawsuit was filed.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office resolved the lawsuit and agreed to release the vehicle back to Rodriguez about seven weeks after they took it. Police released the vehicle on the condition it was never again loaned to Hernandez.
However, prosecutors charged Rodriguez $1,600 to get her truck back, plus storage and towing fees.
The Tribune report noted what happened was legal. The civil asset forfeiture process allows police to seize goods and money they believe is related to criminal activity, even when the owner was never charged with a crime. Prosecutors file suit against the goods seized and can keep proceeds for their own purposes.
Civil asset forfeiture is popular with law enforcement. It has gained new traction under the Trump administration but has vocal opponents on both sides of the political spectrum.
The process is highly controversial because people who don’t fight it in court automatically lose their property. Fighting civil asset forfeiture in the courts can be a costly business.
The Tribune reported police and prosecutors in Texas swelled their coffers by more than $50 million last year by seizing a wide range of goods, cash, and property under criminal forfeiture — which requires a defendant to first be found guilty of a crime — and civil asset forfeiture. The latter does not require a criminal charge.
The process treats property linked to a potential crime as “contraband” that can be sold off.
The critics of the system include Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit justice center that claims police are using asset forfeiture to address gaps in their budgets.
The organization cites data acquired from the Texas Office of the Attorney General showing law enforcement agencies in 11 counties used more than $41 million seized under forfeiture on their equipment, more than $20 million on officer salaries and overtime, more than $6 million on facility costs, and in excess of $4.5 million on other fees.
Some politicians are challenging asset forfeiture in the Texas legislature. More bills are proposed in the 2019 session. Last year, state Reps. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg and Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler filed legislation to put a greater onus on the state when pursuing asset forfeiture cases.
Asset forfeiture is one of the most controversial aspects of the criminal process in Texas. If police seized your property or you are facing criminal charges, please call our Dallas defense team at (214) 720-9552.