Support drivers’ rights: fix asset forfeiture in Texas!

Ask your lawmaker to stop govt property grab!

Did you know that your property can be seized on the suspicion that it is somehow involved in a crime, even if you are never convicted or charged with an illegal activity? In Texas, civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to strip you of your home, business, money, vehicle or any possessions of worth before you’ve had your day in court. Quite often, when you do make it to court, it’s your property that’s on trial, not you.

Bi-partisan coalition for reform

The following organizations support this proposal: Texas Public Policy Foundation, Empower Texans, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, ACLU of Texas, the Institute for Justice, Texans for Accountable Government, and Just Liberty.

In short: Require a criminal conviction before the government can seize assets!

Protect property rights along with personal rights:
– return forfeiture to its original purpose: targeting kingpins;
– ensure the law targets criminals, not average people;
– reduce wasted court time on small, questionable forfeiture cases;
– eliminate perception of profit motive driving law enforcement actions.

Unfairly places onus on property owner, not government

When the government seizes your property under civil forfeiture laws, the onus is on you (technically, your stuff) to prove it has not been part of a nexus of criminal activity. And you must do so before the government must prove anything. The onus is on the property owner, not the government, to dispute that “nexus” before the government has been required to prove anything, much less that a crime had been committed. This leaves open ample room for abuse when police or prosecutors are motivated by revenue more than justice.

Having assets seized can cause real short-term hardship, even when the property owner gets their stuff back. But often, the cost of hiring an attorney to contest the seizure is greater than the value of the goods or cash, in which case the government wins by “default judgment,” meaning they take ownership of the items without  being formally contested.

Examples of abuse

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition released a report in 2016 after reviewing asset forfeiture in Travis County. A man was arrested at a traffic stop after selling a car in cash on Craig’s list, and officers took thousands of dollars. He got his money back a year later after the government failed to prove any charge against him, but he had to hire a lawyer and fight.

When Eh Wah, a manager of a touring Christian rock band, was pulled over in Oklahoma for a broken tail light, the $53,000 that he had collected on his band’s tour to benefit an orphanage was seized under suspicion of drug trafficking. After an expensive court battle, Eh Wah was able to recover the money for the orphanage.

In Teneha, TX, 200 motorists were pulled over between 2006 and 2008 and 147 of them had their property seized without being charged with a crime. In 24 months, Tehana police seized a jolting $3 million in cash, cars, jewelry, and cell phones.

We can end the unhinged mining for property by requiring a criminal conviction for civil asset forfeiture.

Abrogation of constitutional rights

The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution holds that, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Modern asset forfeiture laws fly in the face of that prohibition, seizing property without regard to whether the owner was really engaged in criminal activity. If the government wants to seize citizens’ property because of alleged criminal activity, they should have to prove the charges just like they would if they wanted to restrict their liberty through incarceration. Indeed, seizing their property without sufficient due process IS a restriction on liberty.

Profit motive driving asset forfeiture mission creep

The scope of asset forfeiture has gotten way out of hand. In 2014, for the first time, the amount of money seized by the government in civil forfeiture proceedings exceeded the amount stolen by burglars. Such a massive amount of money causes cash-strapped local government to skew law enforcement priorities, hoping to cash in on an asset-forfeiture bonanza. That bonanza, though, inevitably results in a long, daily grind of small cases as opposed to one or two big scores.

Putting profits over public safety when it comes to policing priorities harms the public, since forfeitures don’t typically occur in cases with victims. (Drug sales are consensual transactions.) Perhaps it would improve matters if forfeiture money went to schools or the general county fund instead of the agencies which seize it, but right now there’s a direct profit motive which encourages agencies to take ever-smaller, more questionable cases.

The Texas Legislature can stop asset-forfeiture abuses in their tracks by requiring a criminal conviction before assets can be seized. That would instill greater confidence that law enforcement’s motives are pure when they take people’s property and make the process more fair and just for everyone.