Law enforcement can use civil asset forfeiture to seize property they believe has or will be involved in a crime. Law enforcement can use civil asset forfeiture to seize cash, a vehicle, personal belongings, or even a house. In Texas, an asset forfeiture proceeding is civil. Prosecutors charge the property, not the owner, with involvement in a crime. Judicial forfeiture by the court does not require criminal action. Instead, it is a proceeding filed in court against the property in question. Administrative forfeiture of property can happen without the necessity of court involvement. 

The Process of Civil Forfeiture in Texas

Civil asset forfeiture laws have been and used for decades in Texas. These laws were originally intended to take down criminal organizations by seizing their assets, so they can no longer operate. Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have abused civil asset forfeiture programs in the past. In many cases, innocent Texas residents lose their property because they lack knowledge of civil forfeiture laws and the proper proceedings to challenge them. Many people do not realize that you can lose your property through civil forfeiture even if you have never been convicted of a crime.

When a person receives a civil forfeiture notice, the notice will provide a time frame to file an objection. It is crucial that you file an objection within the timeframe, or you could lose your right to object to the forfeiture of your property. As soon as you receive a notice that your property will be seized, we recommend contacting an inexperienced defense lawyer. At the Law Offices of Steven Jumes, we will provide you with a strong forfeiture defense and fight for your right to keep your property. Although it may seem challenging, it is possible to defend against forfeiture of your property successfully.

 

Texas Civil Forfeiture Laws

Chapter 59 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure governs Texas’s civil forfeiture laws. Under this law, law enforcement has a right to seize and sell any real or personal property used or intended to be used in the commission of specific designated misdemeanors and felonies. The law also allows civil forfeiture of contraband that a person bought using money obtained in the commission of certain misdemeanors and felonies. Additionally, law enforcement agencies Contraband used to facilitate the commission of designated misdemeanors and felonies. The following list of criminal offenses in Texas are designated as authorizing civil forfeiture:

  • Drug charges
  • Burglary
  • Felony DUI when they’re our prior convictions
  • First and second-degree felonies
  • Drug charges
  • Computer crimes
  • Evading arrest
  • Criminal trespass
  • Money laundering
  • Identity theft
  • Various weapons charges

 

Warrantless Seizures of Property

Under Texas law, any property law enforcement considers contraband can be seized and forfeited. Contraband is defined as any real, personal, tangible, or intentional property used to commit a crime or the fruits of a crime. Police do not need a warrant to seize property they believe to be contraband. The warrantless seizure of property can legally take place when:

  • The owner consents to such actions
  • The owner consents to a search
  • The state previously received a judgment in its favor to forfeit the property, or 
  • The property was seized incident to a lawful arrest

 

What Types of Properties Can Be Seized Through Civil Asset Forfeiture?

Civil asset forfeiture is frequently used to seize property such as illegal merchandise to import into the United States. The process is also used to seize property used to transport, store, or import unlawful controlled substances, monetary instruments, and other property worth $500,000 or less. When someone is criminally charged in federal court, they may receive a notice that certain types of property have been seized during the criminal investigation. Under civil asset forfeiture laws, the government is allowed to seize all the following types of properties:

  • Property that has been used in an illegal transaction
  • Property of value which was intended to be traded in exchange for a controlled substance
  • Any financial assets or proceeds used in the exchange of a controlled substance
  • Any property or assets used to violate drug laws

Civil forfeiture of a person’s property can happen in a case as routine as a vehicle stopped for a traffic violation. A law enforcement officer may pull you over and inform you that you committed an offense. The officer may ask for permission to search the vehicle. If the individual consents to the search, anything considered, the officer can seize evidence of a crime or contraband.

 

Civil Asset Forfeiture in Texas is Widespread

The Institute for Justice has rated Texas with a D+ for its civil forfeiture laws. Prosecutors have a low bar to prove they are entitled to forfeit the property. Prosecutors only have to prove that the property that was seized was connected to a crime by a preponderance of the evidence. This is a low standard of proof that puts the burden on the property owner. 

Under Texas civil asset forfeiture laws, there are poor protections for the innocent. For example, third-party property owners must prove their evidence to recover their seized property, even if they have not been convicted of a crime. There is a significant financial incentive for police officers to seize property. In Texas, up to 70% of proceeds that have been forfeited go to law enforcement agencies when a property is forfeited by default. When the property owner contests the forfeiture, up to 100% of the property goes straight to law enforcement agencies. 

Allowing local law enforcement officials to keep and use a substantial amount of the property obtained from seizing contraband gives them an incentive to overzealously pursue civil forfeiture. This system often leads to corruption, especially in Texas, where police and prosecutors are frequently allowed to keep all of the property they seize. In addition, Texas has some of the broadest forfeiture laws. The forfeiture law has been expanded to any first or second-degree felony and numerous expressly listed offenses listed in other codes.

 

Getting Your Property Back After a Civil Forfeiture in Texas

Civil asset forfeiture is controversial, mainly because a person does not need to be charged with a crime to have their assets seized. Thankfully, US citizens are entitled to protection under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The 14th Amendment allows those who have been victims of police seizures an opportunity for a hearing. After a police officer has seized property, the state has 30 days to file a lawsuit. The state will take civil action against the property itself, not the property owner.

The property owner will be served with the petition for the lawsuit. The owner will receive notice that the state intends to seize the property. They will have to file an answer challenging the forfeiture. Failure to file an answer can result in the property automatically being turned over to the state. An experienced attorney can help the property owner fight against forfeiture by raising various defenses. The property owner can claim that the state cannot prove that the property was used or intended to be used for a crime or that it was the proceeds of a crime by a preponderance of the evidence. 

 

Getting Your Property Back Before the Forfeiture Case Has Been Decided

For many people whose property has been seized, it can be difficult to pay their bills and meet their financial needs while they wait for the hearing. You may be wondering whether you can get your property back before the case has been decided. In most cases, it is possible to temporarily get your property back after it has been seized and before the case has been decided. There are some exceptions to this rule when you cannot get your property back, including if your property is being used as evidence in a pending criminal investigation or the property seized in the form of cash or a check.

You can try to temporarily get your property back after it has been seized, but you will be required to post a bond. You will need to pay the court overseeing your case an amount equal to the value of the seized property. You must promise to return the property to the state’s custody on the day of the forfeiture trial, and you must abide by the decision made at the end of the case. If you end up losing at the forfeiture hearing, you will need to return the property, and you will not have any further rights to the property.

 

What Is the Timeline for Civil Forfeiture Cases?

Federal agencies have more time to file civil forfeiture cases than state law enforcement agencies. After seizing a person’s property, the state of Texas has 30 days to file their case with the court. When the property was seized by a federal agent, such as one employed by the DEA, FBI, or IRS, then turned the property over to Texas, the 30-day clock begins running when given to state law enforcement. When the state fails to file the claim within the 30-day time period, you are entitled to have your property returned to you. The state must let you know in person or through the mail when it has filed a suit against your property. This is called the serving notice.

Federal agencies can hold administrative proceedings for civil asset forfeiture instead of, or in addition to, judicial proceedings, giving them more time to forfeit your process. Sometimes state and federal agencies work together through a joint investigation. In these cases, called equitable sharing, local law enforcement officials can keep up to 80% of the proceeds after selling the forfeited property.

 

Can Police Seize My Property if I Have Not Been Convicted of a Crime?

Unfortunately, you do not have to be convicted of a crime in Texas for your property to be forfeited and seized. The state does not even need to bring criminal charges against you before seizing your property. Suppose a police officer finds drug manufacturing paraphernalia in a person’s home after executing a warrant. The state seizes his motor vehicle. However, the prosecutor decides not to prosecute him for drug manufacturing charges because he agrees to testify against a defendant in another drug-related case. Even though the homeowner has never been charged with a drug crime, the state can still pursue forfeiture of the vehicle.

 

The State Must Follow Required Procedures

The state cannot forfeit your property unless they follow all of Texas’ civil forfeiture law requirements. For example, the state has an obligation to file its case against your property within 30 days of seizing your property. If they do not file within this timeframe, you are entitled to have your property returned to you. The state also has to provide you with proper notice. They must provide notice to you, the owner of the property, or an interest holder of the property. 

An interest holder could be the bank with a mortgage on your property or the finance company that owns your car loan. When the state fails to provide you with proper notice, you can file a motion for a new trial or a bill of review lawsuit, which is a separate attack on the results of the forfeiture hearing. If you succeed in the Bill of Review, it will eliminate the judgment against you in the forfeiture case. You will be allowed to have a new trial.

 

The State Must Meet its Burden of Proof 

The state does not need to prove that a crime has occurred. They do not need to prove that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Since civil asset forfeiture cases are civil, the state is only required to prove that your property meets the definition of contraband by a preponderance of the evidence. They need to show that it is more likely than not that the property was used or intended to be used in the commission of a crime.  

Your attorney will be able to provide evidence showing that the state cannot prove that it was more likely than not that the evidence was contraband. For example, just because law enforcement officers found money next to marijuana does not mean that the money was used in that specific drug transaction. The money may not have been gained from the proceeds of drug-related criminal activity.

 

The Innocent Owner Defense Against Civil Asset Forfeiture

One of the main issues with civil asset forfeiture laws is that an innocent person can lose their property even without being convicted of a crime. When you are defending yourself against civil asset forfeiture, you can prove that you were an innocent property owner.  The innocent owner defense is one of the most commonly used defenses. You will need to provide evidence at the hearing showing that you got the property before or when the crime happened. 

You will need to show that you didn’t know that the crime occurred before you took the property and that you should not have reasonably known about the criminal activity when you took the property. If you obtained the property after the alleged crime occurred, you would need to show that you obtained the property in a legal manner and did not take the property for free. You also need to show that you had no reason to believe that the property was contraband. 

 

Dismissal of Criminal Charges As a Defense

Suppose the criminal charges against you have been dropped. This is not a complete defense against the last forfeiture, but you can use this defense at your forfeiture hearing. Many people choose to use the innocent owner’s defense and bring up the fact that the criminal charges against them have been dropped to show that the state cannot meet its burden of proof.

 

Other Defenses Against Civil Asset Forfeiture

Victims of family violence who cannot stop a crime from happening can use the family violence defense. They will need to show that they could not stop the crime associated with the property due to family violence. Other common defenses include:

  • Accord and satisfaction
  • Assumption of risk
  • Arbitration and award
  • Duress
  • Discharge in bankruptcy 
  • Contributory negligence
  • Estoppel
  • Fraud
  • Failure of consideration
  • Laches
  • Illegality
  • License
  • Release
  • Res judicata
  • Statute of frauds
  • Waiver
  • Statute of limitations

Every civil asset forfeiture case is unique and will require a legal defense based on the specific facts of your case. With the help of an experienced attorney, you can begin preparing the most strategic defense. 

 

Discuss Your Civil Forfeiture Case With a Fort Worth Attorney

You have rights if your property has been seized through civil forfeiture in Texas. Contact the Law Offices of Steven Jumes as soon as possible to discuss your case with an experienced attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Steven Jumes as soon as possible to discuss your case and how we can fight for you and your property.