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Will Texas lawmakers repeal civil asset forfeiture laws?

by | Nov 14, 2015 | White Collar Crimes

A new Texas bill seeks to repeal state civil asset forfeiture laws, which let authorities seize a person’s property without proving the person’s guilt.

Most people in Dallas understand that people accused of crimes in the U.S. are considered innocent until proven guilty. However, many people may not know that this standard does not guarantee absolute protection for people suspected of criminal activity. In Texas, under civil asset forfeiture laws, authorities may seize a person’s assets before the person is convicted of any crimes.

Asset forfeiture may frequently be used in cases involving alleged drug, property or white collar crimes. Fortunately for people facing these charges, lawmakers are now considering making changes to current state laws. As the Tyler Morning Telegraph reports, a recently introduced bill would fully repeal the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws.

Asset forfeiture overview

Civil and criminal forfeiture laws allow authorities to seize property that was used in the commission of criminal activity. Authorities may similarly seize any proceeds resulting from criminal activity. Under civil forfeiture laws, Texas authorities can seize property before a person has been convicted or even charged. Additionally, authorities must only show “a preponderance of evidence” that property qualifies for seizure.

For the victims of asset forfeiture, regaining property that has been seized can prove challenging. Authorities may sell or otherwise dispose of seized property before a person is even charged with a crime. Even if a person is charged and subsequently acquitted, authorities are not obligated to return the property. These standards leave innocent people at risk for wrongful property loss.

Conflicts of interest

Besides introducing concerns about civil liberties, civil asset forfeiture laws may leave room for abuse. According to Forbes, authorities in Texas are permitted to keep up to 90 percent of the proceeds of seized assets. This may create an incentive for seizure even in cases where the existence of illegal activity is questionable.

In some cases, the worth of the property seized may also significantly exceed the value or scope of the criminal activity. For instance, in 2012, authorities arrested 23 Texas Christian University students for selling drugs. The estimated value of the drugs seized was $29,000. Many students were punished only with probation or deferred adjudication. Still, authorities seized more than $300,000 worth of property from the students, including vehicles worth over $250,000.

Unfortunately, cases like this one are not isolated. From 2001 to 2007, authorities in Texas seized over $280 million in assets, according to Forbes. These assets included over 350,000 houses, vehicles and electronics. These figures underscore the fact that asset forfeiture is a serious threat to almost anyone facing criminal charges in Texas.

Proposed changes

If the recently introduced bill passes, the state’s current civil asset forfeiture laws will be repealed. The bill would allow authorities to seize assets from people who have been criminally convicted, but only after due process. This change could make a substantial difference in protecting the rights of people facing white collar criminal charges in Texas.

Until this bill or a similar measure passes, asset forfeiture is a risk that anyone charged with a crime in Texas should appreciate. Speaking to an attorney can be an important step for people facing the possibility of asset seizure. An attorney may be able to assist a person in fighting to keep or regain any seized property.

Keywords: civil, asset, forfeiture, property