Civil Forfeiture Law: Know Your Rights
Posted on Jun 17, 2015 7:00am UTC
Civil forfeiture laws have been around for decades in Houston, and in other communities throughout Texas. Originally designed as a weapon for police and prosecutors to use to bring down organized crime operations, such as drug dealers, by seizing their assets, these programs have expanded.
A law that took the money and other assets of violent criminals seemed like a good way to weaken them. At the same time, the money from a sale of those same assets could be put to use by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to finance future investigations into illegal activities.
Now, concerns have been raised about abuses in civil forfeiture programs throughout the state. Innocent people can lose their property due to lack of familiarity with these laws and the procedures necessary to challenge them.
Multi-Million Dollar Success or an Abuse of Power?
One of the key problems with forfeiture laws is that you can lose your property even without being convicted of a crime. Unlike a criminal case in which the burden is on prosecutors to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, if police seize your property, the burden is on you to prove that you are entitled to get it back. This can be very difficult, and the value of the asset might not justify the expense involved with trying to get it back.
According to a report prepared on behalf of the Texas Office of Court Administration, the state seized $486 million in assets through civil forfeiture during a recent 10-year period. The report noted that one of the most active law enforcement agencies in the seizure of assets was the Highway Patrol of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The money realized in the sale of seized assets can account for as much as 40 percent of the revenue of some police departments and law enforcement agencies. Cash found in cars and other vehicles stopped by the police in one Texas community resulted in a $3 million windfall during a single two-year period amidst allegations that the money was not drug-related as police claimed it to be.
Civil Forfeiture Laws in Houston
Chapter 59 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure offers a very broad definition of the property that is subject to civil forfeiture. Contraband subject to seizure and sale is any real or personal property used or intended to be used in the commission of certain designated felonies and misdemeanors.
The statute goes on to allow civil forfeiture of contraband that was purchased using money obtained in the commission of certain designated felonies and misdemeanors or used to facilitate the commission of those crimes. The list of crimes designated as authorizing civil forfeiture is a lengthy one, but some of the crimes include:
- First and second-degree felonies
- Evading arrest
- Criminal trespass
- Computer crimes
- Felony DUI if there are prior convictions
- Drug charges
- Money Laundering
- Identity theft
- Various weapons offenses
How Civil Forfeiture Law Seizures Occur in Houston
A civil forfeiture may begin with something as common and nonthreatening as a routine vehicle stop for a traffic violation. Imagine you are traveling on a street in Houston when a police car pulls up behind you and the officer signals you to pull your vehicle to the curb. After informing you that you were speeding, the officer asks for permission to search your vehicle.
Consent is an easy method for police to gain access to your motor vehicle, apartment or home to search for evidence or contraband that may be seized. One Texas police department seized cash from motorists on the pretext that it was contraband related to drug crimes.
Cash is just one thing that may be taken under Houston civil forfeiture. The broad scope of the law allows for the seizure of a variety of personal or real property items, including:
- Motor vehicles
- Homes and other real property
- Bank accounts
- Motor homes
- Cellular phones and electronics
Once it is seized, getting your property back can become a problem. Usually, you will not realize that your property is the subject of civil forfeiture until you receive a written notice of seizure. At that point, you should contact a Houston attorney who is knowledgeable in the defense of civil forfeiture cases under Texas law.
Your Rights Under Civil Forfeiture
Civil forfeiture is a complex area of the law that might, at first glance, appear to be staked in favor of the government. The truth is that you have rights under state and federal forfeiture laws and under the Constitution of the United States.
Due process under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution requires that the law under which police seize property in civil forfeiture cases offers you the opportunity for a hearing. Too many people give up this important right by ignoring the notice of seizure.
A Houston civil forfeiture attorney knows how to force the government to prove that your property is contraband within the definition of the law. The attorney can assert defenses and take other steps to protect your rights, but you must take the first step by taking the initiative of retaining a lawyer.
If you’ve been accused of a crime in Houston or the surrounding areas, contact the Law Offices of Billy Skinner. We will fight hard to protect your rights and preserve your freedom.