Will Texas End Civil Forfeiture in 2017?
Right now, the police can take your property and keep it forever even if you are never convicted of any crime. Things may change soon, though.
Here’s the skinny:
New Law Proposed to End Civil Forfeiture in Texas
In a matter of weeks, state lawmakers will return to Austin for the 85th Biennial Texas Legislative Session. And when they do, Senate Bill No. 380 awaits them.
Filed on December 20, 2016, by Fort Worth State Senator Konni Burton (Colleyville), you can read the full text of the original proposal online here.
What is Civil Forfeiture?
Right now, Texas law allows the police to take property (“seize” it) as part of their criminal investigation. And keep it. Forever. It’s called “forfeiture” and it’s done all the time.
Say you’re a doctor suspected of selling pain medications illegally and in violation of state or federal law.
The police can knock on your door, and along with arresting you they can grab your property. Your computers, sure. But maybe they’ll take away things like jewelry, artwork, and cash because they’ve tagged a money laundering charge alongside the fraud allegations.
You get a great criminal defense lawyer and he gets you freed from the allegations and charges. You’re not convicted. Your case is closed.
What about your property? Under civil forfeiture laws as they stand right now in Texas, the prosecutor can file a lawsuit against your stuff. It’s a civil forfeiture action.
He or she only needs to prove by the lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard that your property may have been tainted by some criminal connection somehow, and voila. The government gets to keep it. Never mind you weren’t convicted of a thing.
New Forfeiture Law: Criminal Forfeiture Not Civil
Under the new proposed law, Texas would be a criminal forfeiture state. Not a civil one. This means that the government could not seize and keep your property unless and until it had a conviction against you, the property owner.
Under the new proposed law, the government has to prove up their case and get a conviction before it seizes and takes property from a citizen. See, “Texas Lawmakers Want to Make It Harder for the State to Take Stuff From People,” written by Dianna Wray and published by the Houston Press on December 22, 2016.
The Bill Also Blocks Sidestepping via Federal Forfeiture
Another great thing about this proposed law: it stops the Dance with the Feds.
The law works to block the state government and local powers-that-be from dodging things and getting the property anyway by asking federal agents to take the lead. Without this provision in the proposal, it would be easy enough for the state prosecutors to keep handing over these cases to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Then the feds run with the ball, grab the property (“seize it”), and keep it under the federal forfeiture laws.
That’s what happens now a lot of the time. There’s already a procedure where state and local forfeiture proceeds are shared by the feds after they’ve been tossed the ball.
It’s a big piece of the pie, too. Today, it’s estimated that around 70% or more of assets seized in forfeiture actions end up paying for law enforcement expenses.
That’s right: they seize the stuff and then the property works to cover police department budgets. Forfeited property keeps some police department running in Texas today. See, “Forfeiture Funds are Back as Equitable Sharing Program Gears Up in Dallas County and State of Texas .”
Under SB380, things will change. The “Equitable Sharing Forfeiture Program” between Texas and the federal government will be terminated. It prohibits state prosecutors and local police departments from passing cases to the feds. The only forfeitures that the federal government will be able to do in Texas will be forfeitures based upon their own investigations under federal law.
Does the Proposed Law Gut All Civil Forfeiture? No.
Read the original draft of SB380 and you’ll find that it doesn’t terminate all civil forfeitures in Texas. That would be nice (like New Mexico has done), but no.
However, the proposal does limit civil forfeiture. If passed into law, SB380 will allow civil forfeiture only if the property owner is long gone, and not to be found. Or the owner’s location is known, but she never shows up to claim the stuff.
State Senator Konni Burton’s Reasons for the New Forfeiture Bill
Senator Burton has explained her reasons for placing this bill before the Texas Legislature. She points out that even if a citizen is able to get their seized property returned to them, they must live without that property for at least 30 days before they can petition for its release.
Think about that if it was your car or truck that had been taken.
From Senator Burton’s release:
While civil asset forfeiture is a strong tool against large criminal enterprises, we need to ensure there are sufficient protections in statute for law-abiding individuals. A prime example of the inefficiency of our current asset forfeiture system is when an individual has their property wrongly seized, they are unable to even begin the process for reclamation of this property for up to thirty days. This individual is simply expected to do without their property, which could be anything from money to a vehicle or to a home, with no means to even petition their government for redress for an unreasonably long period of time. This is unacceptable. The status quo must change….
Property rights are the foundation of any free system of government, and we have allowed the government to erode them in the name of law and order. We must do better and I intend to lead the charge.
How to Show Your Support for Ending Civil Forfeiture in Texas
Austin will have 140 days to get this thing passed. The Legislative Session ends in May.
If you want to do your part to prod them along or to show your support for changing Texas Forfeiture Laws, feel free to visit the Just Liberty site at e-activist.com and sign up.
For more on forfeiture, see our web resources and Michael Lowe’s Case Results and check out his articles on forfeiture that include:
- Fighting to Stop Asset Forefeiture by Police Isn’t That Easy
- The Forfeiture Epidemic: When the Government Just Takes Your Property and Keeps It
- Update on Law of Asset Forfeitures: Federal and Texas – Are You Any Safer?
- Forfeiture Victory for Police: They Can Seize and Keep Assets Even In an Illegal Search Says Texas Supreme Court
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