The Case for Asset Forfeiture Reform in Texas

It is said that everything is bigger in Texas, unfortunately, that isn’t always a good thing. In just under a decade, Texas has taken $540.7 million dollars’ worth of assets from its citizens.[1] Texas is one of the more aggressive states when it comes to the practice of civil asset forfeiture, earning an average yearly income of $41.6 million from the practice. [2]
Legal Taking of Property?
Civil Asset Forfeiture is the practice by which property can be confiscated from people without ever charging them with a criminal offense. Civil asset forfeiture is an actual civil suit brought against the confiscated item leading to bizarre sounding cases such as State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado, and State of Texas v. .39 acres.

However, while civil asset forfeiture was presented to the public as a reasonable method to offset the cost of law enforcement by shifting cost to alleged criminals, in practice, specifically in Texas, a perverse incentive system for law enforcement was created. In Texas, law enforcement agencies that participate in civil asset forfeiture can keep much of the value of whatever they confiscate.[3]

Rampant Abuse
With the odds stacked in favor of the prosecution at trial and law enforcement incentivized to take as much property as they can, abuse of the system has become quite prevalent in Texas. Abuse is well documented, with an extreme example in the town of Tenaha in Shelby County, Texas. This town of 1,160 managed to rake in $3 million between 2006-2008. The use of asset forfeiture money was used for items such as popcorn machines, donations to churches, and bonuses to law enforcement officers. In Tenaha, police would confiscate money and electronics while doing routine traffic stops, and even extorted more money out of them through “cash for freedom” deals.[4] Eventually the operation was stopped in 2012 after the settlement of a class action lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of those affected.
Prospects for Asset Forfeiture Reform
While Civil Asset Forfeiture is still occurring unimpeded, the prospects for reform are increasing. Unfortunately, in 2015, the Texas Legislature failed to pass any of the twelve civil asset forfeiture reform bills due to stiff opposition from law enforcement organizations and the Texas Sheriffs Association. Thankfully, 2016 has seen State political parties adopt new platforms that call for the abolishing of Civil Asset Forfeiture in Texas. In May 2016, the Texas GOP adopted the following plank to their platform:

We urge the Legislature to abolish civil asset forfeiture and to ensure private property only be forfeited upon a criminal conviction.”[5]

The plank signifies a political shift occurring in the Republican Party which currently controls the Texas government.

Further, investigative reports, class action lawsuits, and news articles exploring the abuses of the civil asset forfeiture system have shed a national spotlight on the issue. With the 2017 legislature fast approaching, and the issue of asset forfeiture fresh in the public and political mind, reform appears within reach. While party platforms and public awareness are no guarantee of meaningful reform, public pressure on the legislature to reflect the will of their political parties and the will of the Texas people may be all that’s needed to see reform in 2017.

Written by Hunter White

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Gilbert Garcia has been Passionately Pursuing Justice for over 30 years and founded The Gilbert G. Garcia Law Firm in 2008. The Gilbert G. Garcia Law Firm is a boutique law firm, specializing in Criminal Defense. Gilbert represents adults and juveniles accused of a crime and who have with a felony, misdemeanor or record cleaning case. Conveniently located on the courthouse square to serve Montgomery and Walker Counties. Gilbert became Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1989. The Gilbert G. Garcia Law Firm is located at 220 N. Thompson St., Suite 202, Conroe, TX 77301.