Asset forfeiture: a high-profile, controversial topic in Texas

Few Texans – if any – are more knowledgeable about state and federal laws than Don Willett, who has a singular legal perspective that is impressively integrated and complementary.

Willett is a former Texas Supreme Court Justice who now sits on the federal bench as an appellate court judge. Understandably, his legal acumen is both broad and deep. Willett unsurprisingly holds strong positions on many matters, including the topic of asset forfeiture.

That subject clearly arouses Willett’s passion, as is made eminently clear by his remarks quoted in a recent in-depth media piece discussing the controversial reach of civil and criminal asset forfeiture in Texas and nationally.

Willett says that America’s pioneering ancestors in past centuries would likely “be astonished watching government seize, then sell, the property of guiltless citizens who have not been charged with any crime, much less convicted of one.”

The judge’s strong viewpoint on forfeiture is an insider’s perspective, of course, but it is a belief strongly shared by many millions of Americans across the country who stress its unfairness and illegitimacy.

Property forfeiture is a long-recognized practice in the United States. Indeed, the above-cited article notes its origins that predate the country’s Constitution.

The rationale underlying forfeiture is simple enough, to wit: the grant of a right to law enforcers to seize property they believe is linked with criminal activity. Forfeiture’s practice and scope took off like a rocket in immediately preceding decades in tandem with the so-called War on Drugs. Property seizures have been closely tied to alleged white collar crimes like drug trafficking and money laundering. Reportedly, the federal government alone raked in about $4.5 billion through criminal forfeiture seizures in one recent year alone.

States, too, have increasingly engaged in the practice, to the extent that forfeiture critics strongly condemn the practice as being “policing for profit.”

Texas has a long and – candidly – lucrative history linked with forfeiture outcomes and related deposits into enforcement agencies across the state. We will spotlight some of the details in our next blog post.