Many people are not aware that the government can seize your property, even if you have not been convicted of a crime. Under Texas’s civil asset forfeiture law, officials can confiscate and potentially keep a person’s property when they believe it was used or intended to commit a crime. They can also confiscate property if they believe the property was purchased with money obtained from illegal activity, such as illegal drug sales or distribution.
What is Civil Asset Forfeiture?
Civil asset forfeiture can occur regardless of whether someone has been charged with or convicted of the alleged crime. Police officers can even see a person’s property without making an arrest in the case. The purpose of civil asset forfeiture is to take property away from people connected to illegal activity. Unfortunately, these laws can deprive innocent people who have never been convicted of a crime of their property. A person could lose their property forever even if they were not engaged in criminal conduct.
It is important to point out that asset seizure and asset forfeiture are different. Asset seizure happens when a police officer takes your property initially. Forfeiture happens when a court determines that your property is contraband. The result of forfeiture is that the state gets to keep your property. As a property owner, you have the right to contest the seizure of your property before it is forfeited to the state permanently.
For more information, please see:
- What is Civil Asset Forfeiture?
Do the Police Need to Have a Warrant to Seize My Property?
Unfortunately, police officers do not always need a warrant to seize a person’s property when they believe the property is associated with criminal activity. Under Texas law, when police officers consider property contraband, it can be subject to seizure and forfeiture. The definition of contraband is any real, personal, tangible, or intangible property that someone has used to commit crimes or the fruit of specific types of criminal activity. Police officers can engage in a warrantless seizure of your property in any of the following circumstances:
- The property owner consents to have the property seized by the police
- The owner consents to a search of their property
- Texas previously received a judgment in favor of forfeiting the property, or
- The property was seized as part of a lawful arrest
What Happens After My Property Has Been Seized?
Discovering that police officers are seizing your property can be stressful and jarring. Understanding the process can help you protect yourself and your property. After a police officer has seized your property, the state needs to file a lawsuit within 30 days. They will take action against your property itself, not against you as the property owner. The state must serve you with the petition for the lawsuit, which includes the notice of intent to seize the property.
Filing an Answer
If your property has been seized, it is crucial that you file an answer to the notice of intent within a specific timeframe. Filing an answer is the first step in protecting your property. Even though filing an answer is not difficult, we recommend working with an experienced Dallas-Fort Worth civil forfeiture attorney. If you do not file an answer in time, you may lose your ability to contest your property being turned over to the state of Texas.
After you file your answer, you will begin preparing for a civil trial with your attorney. During the trial, the state will need to prove that the property in question was used or intended to be used for a crime or was proceeds of a crime. The state must prove these elements by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning it is more likely than not that your property meets the definition of contraband. As a property owner, there are multiple defenses you can use to challenge the forfeiture of your property. Your attorney can also use the rules of civil procedure to try to challenge the actions taken by the state.
The Innocent Owner Defense
The innocent owner defense is one of the most common defenses to civil asset forfeiture. If the property was seized before, during, or after the time of the crime, you can use this defense.
Suppose you obtained the property after the crime took place. In that case, you may be able to argue that you got the property for value and did not take it for free. You may be able to claim you did not have a reason to believe that the property was associated with a crime and contraband. However, if you purposely avoided learning that the property was intended to be used for or was used for a crime, you will not be able to use the innocent owner defense.
Dismissal of Criminal Charges
Dismissal of the underlying criminal charges is not a complete defense against forfeiture. Nonetheless, you can still use this defense if the criminal charges that were associated with the forfeiture have been dropped in a separate court case. For example, if you were charged with drug distribution, but the criminal court dismissed the charges against you, you should include this defense along with other defenses.
The family violence defense applies to spouses who have been victims of domestic violence. For example, if a spouse cannot stop a crime that is in progress, and that is the basis for the seizure of their property, they can use this defense.
Reach Out to an Experienced Attorney
If your property has been seized in a civil forfeiture proceeding, it is crucial that you reach out to an attorney as soon as possible. The sooner you discuss your case with a skilled attorney, the sooner your attorney can begin developing the best legal defense possible. Contact us today to schedule your free initial consultation and learn more about your rights.