Civil asset forfeiture is the seizure of property by local or state law enforcement if it is suspected that the property was used in committing a crime, even if the property owner was never charged or convicted of a crime. This practice is a popular way to raise revenue for law enforcement agencies; however, it has been the subject of widespread criticism and outcry for reform. Even small amounts of cash on a person do not escape seizure. If the property owner does not dispute the seizure in court – which is what happens in most cases – he will automatically lose the property. If one were to fight the seizure in court, it would result in costly litigation. Because the standard of proof to forfeit property in Texas is preponderance of the evidence, the burden is on the property owner to prove the property was not connected to criminal activity.
When property seized through civil asset forfeiture is sold, the police agencies may keep the proceeds from the sale for departmental use and revenue. In 2017, state and local law enforcement agencies made in excess of $50 million through state asset forfeiture laws by seizing cash, cars, jewelry, clothing and other property they claimed were related to a crime.
The Texas Tribune studied court records to research how asset forfeiture was used by law enforcement agencies in four Texas counties: Harris, Smith, Reeves, and Webb. The Tribune’s enlightening research found:
· Half of the cash seizures were for amounts less than $3,000;
· Many of the forfeiture cases began with a traffic stop;
· Many of the cases were related to possession of small amounts of drugs;
· In 60% of the cases, the property owner did not fight the seizures in court;
· 2 of every 10 cases did not result in a criminal charge against the property owner; and
· In approximately 40% of the cases, the property owner was not convicted of a crime connected to the seizure.
Efforts to reform civil asset forfeiture laws are widespread and the constitutionality of the practice has been heavily scrutinized. Since 2014, 33 states have reformed their forfeiture laws, and 15 states now require a criminal conviction before assets are seized. Whether Texas will reform its forfeiture laws remains to be seen.