One of the lesser-known consequences of drug crimes is the potential for civil asset forfeiture. Under this policy, police are allowed to seize property that they believe has been involved in or could potentially be used to commit a crime.
Although civil asset forfeiture can apply to any crime, it is particularly common in drug crimes, where virtually any major asset (cash, cars, houses) can theoretically be acquired using drug money, or used to commit a future drug crime.
What happens to seized assets?
Therein lies the rub. Law enforcement agencies sell seized assets and use them to support the agency, including paying out overtime – or even bonuses – to officers.
Because assets seized in civil asset forfeiture go directly into the coffers of law enforcement agencies, this creates the potential for a conflict of interest. Many advocates argue that civil asset forfeiture is exploited by law enforcement officials, and that the practice should be ended – or at minimum subject to more oversight.
Below we cover how civil asset forfeiture works, and why some believe that it is an exploitative practice. If you’ve been accused of any crime, particularly a drug crime, it is important to be aware of this practice to protect your rights and property.
How Texas Civil Asset Forfeiture Works
As we touched on above, civil asset forfeiture is a tool that law enforcement officials can use to seize property they believe has been involved in criminal activity, or that could potentially be involved in criminal act. This casts a very broad net, giving officers a significant amount of discretion over what can be seized – but the unfairness of this procedure doesn’t stop there.
Civil asset forfeiture proceedings actually charge the property itself, rather than the owner, with involvement in crime. This means that police can seize an individual’s assets, including cars, houses, money, or valuables, without ever having to convict – or even charge – the individual with a crime.
Texas recognizes the innocent owner defense, which allows property owners to claim that they are innocent of any crimes, and therefore that the property should not be forfeited. However, Texas places the burden on the property owner to prove their innocence. This is the exact opposite of what is required in criminal court cases, where defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Because civil asset forfeiture isn’t a criminal proceeding – it’s a civil case.
Moreover, property owners must pay court costs, and are not provided a public defender. This means that most of the time, the state wins the case by default judgement. In other words, the vast majority of people don’t even try to fight to keep their property because they can’t afford to do so.
Why does this matter?
You already know the answer – because the police agencies who seize the assets get to sell them and use that money. Let’s break it down further, though.
The Danger of Exploitation in Texas Civil Asset Forfeiture
Law enforcement can retain up to 90% of funds from forfeited assets. Statewide, over $100 million in assets are seized annually. That’s essentially over $90 million that Texas law enforcement officials get just by taking assets from suspects.
Not convicts. Not even necessarily people who have been charged with a crime. Suspects.
Because these funds benefit the very people and organizations responsible for civil asset forfeiture, this creates a significant incentive to seize property whenever possible. In many cases, officers specifically seek out opportunities to seize assets. Is it any wonder that many advocates argue that funds are often misappropriated?
What does this mean for you?
If you have been accused of a crime, particularly a drug crime, talk to your attorney about the potential for asset forfeiture. Taking steps in advance may prevent your falling victim to this practice.
About the Author:
After getting his Juris Doctor from the University of Houston Law Center, Jeff Hampton began practicing criminal law in Texas in 2005. Before becoming a defense attorney, he worked as a prosecutor for the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office – experience he uses to anticipate and cast doubt on the arguments that will be used against his clients. Over the course of his career, he has helped countless Texans protect their rights and get the best possible outcome in their criminal cases. His skill has earned him recognition from the National Trial Lawyers (Top 100 Trial Lawyers) and Avvo (Top Attorney in Criminal Defense, Top Attorney in DUI & DWI, 10/10 Superb Rating), and he is Lead Counsel rated.