Criminal Justice

Lone Star State Poised to Consider Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

Civil asset forfeiture reform is poised to remain a top issue in the states in 2017. For example, a bill introduced in Texas would remedy the problems posed by current law. Even though there needs to be laws in place to ensure law enforcement can seize property and assets of dangerous criminals, measures must also be in place to protect law-abiding citizens.

Civil asset forfeiture is a common method of trying to disrupt criminal activity on the basis that the property or assets seized are linked to the underlying crimes being committed. Under civil asset forfeiture laws in Texas, probable cause is the legal standard that an agency seeking seizure and subsequent forfeiture of assets or property must meet. However, probable cause is a relatively low-burden. For example, an individual who is pulled over for a traffic violation could possibly have their property seized. An officer may conduct a search of the vehicle if they suspect underlying criminal activity. The officer can then lawfully seize assets or property if it is deemed that there is probable cause that it is part of criminal activity. The officer doesn’t need to obtain a warrant, nor does the individual need to be charged with a crime. Under article 59.03 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, the officer has the right to seize these assets and the agency can seek to subsequently subject the property to forfeiture. Because many government agencies are permitted to keep the proceeds from forfeiture, there is a perverse incentive for these agencies to seize the property.

In December 2016, SB 380 was introduced by Senator Konni Burton from Texas’ 10th District. If passed, the new bill would abolish civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture. More specifically, the bill would create new restrictions. For example, in order to obtain a judgment of forfeiture over the property, a criminal conviction would be a prerequisite unless the person is deceased, cannot be extradited, or did not claim the property. Exemptions would be made for vehicles under $10,000 market value, cash under the value of $200, and homestead properties. As a result, this important reform would still give law enforcement agencies the tools for investigating and prosecuting criminals, but it would also improve citizens’ rights to make sure property and assets are not wrongfully seized.  Another important part of this bill would make sure that specific government agencies would not directly receive proceeds from forfeited property.

According to Freedom Works, Texas has been under a lot of scrutiny for its asset forfeiture practices. Between 2001 and 2013, Texas has amassed approximately $41.6 million annually through forfeited assets. The year 2014 alone resulted in approximately $5 billion in seized assets. In addition, public opinion greatly favors civil asset forfeiture reform. In a 2015 national poll done by YouGov and The Huffington Post, about 71 percent of Americans believe the government should only be able to permanently seize and obtain a judgment of forfeiture over money or other property if that person is charged and convicted of a crime. Only about 7 percent believe that current civil asset forfeiture laws are just.

The leadership of Senator Konni Burton in her efforts to reform civil asset forfeiture laws is crucial to ensuring Texans’ private property rights are protected from government intrusion. The ALEC model policy Asset Forfeiture Process and Private Property Protection Act provides for such protection as well. Senator Burton is tackling the issue of civil asset forfeiture reform, which has been passed in numerous states over the last two years and is gaining momentum in Texas.

In Depth: Criminal Justice

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