Civil asset forfeiture laws have been around for several decades in Hidalgo County and in other communities throughout Texas. Originally intended to bring down organized criminal operations by seizing their assets, these programs have become subject to abuse by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.
Unfortunately, innocent people lose their property due to lack of knowledge of these laws and the proper procedures to challenge them. One of the main issues 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 of proof is on the prosecution to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, if law enforcement seizes your property, the burden is on you to prove that you are entitled to have it returned. This is often quite difficult and the value of the asset may not justify the expense involved with attempting to get it back.
The money is generally used to finance future investigations into illegal activities. Based on a report by the Texas Office of Court Administration, the state seized $486 million in assets through civil forfeiture during a recent 10-year period
While cash is one thing that could be taken under Texas civil forfeiture, the following are the other items subject to seizure:
- Motor vehicles
- Homes and other real property
- Bank accounts
Civil Forfeiture Laws
According to Chapter 59 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, contraband subject to seizure and sale is any real or personal property used or intended to be used in the commission of specific designated felonies and misdemeanors. The statute also allows civil forfeiture of contraband which was bought using money obtained in the commission of certain designated felonies and misdemeanors or used to facilitate the commission of those crimes.
The following is the list of criminal offenses designated as authorizing civil forfeiture:
- First- and second-degree felonies
- Drug charges
- Felony DUI if there are prior convictions
- Computer crimes
- Money laundering
- Identity theft
- Evading arrest
- Criminal trespass
- Various weapons charges
A civil forfeiture may occur with something as routine as a vehicle stop for a traffic violation. After informing you that you committing an offense, the police officer may ask for permission to search your vehicle. If you consent to the search, anything considered evidence of a crime or contraband may be seized.
Fortunately, U.S. citizens are entitled to due process under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows those who have been victims of police seizure an opportunity for a hearing. A civil forfeiture lawyer knows how to force the government to prove that your property is considered contraband within the definition of the law.