New Toolkit Helps Texans Fight Back Against Civil Forfeiture

Illustration by 355A
Maybe not for long.
Members of both parties in the Texas Legislature are pushing bills to reform civil forfeiture laws in Texas. The state allows law enforcement agencies to file legal actions against property that the agency believes is owned by a criminal or otherwise connected to criminal activity. That way, they can seize property even when there is not an arrest made on the property’s owner.

In the meantime, the criminal justice reform advocacy group Texas Appleseed has released a guide for Texans to fight back. “Civil asset forfeiture creates an environment where you have individuals who have not been charged with a crime — and who may never be found guilty of any crime — losing cash and property to law enforcement,” said Gabriella McDonald, an attorney with Texas Appleseed and director of Pro Bono and New Projects, in announcing the toolkit. “We know the original intent of the law was to deter criminal activity, but the law remains ripe for abuse, and innocent property owners pay the price.”

Texas Appleseed’s Toolkit attempts to make things a little easier by providing sample pleadings that can be customized via computer and a checklist for Texas residents who want to fight forfeiture in court. “People in civil asset forfeiture cases do not have the right to court-appointed counsel, so this toolkit is designed to empower people with the knowledge they need to get their property back if they cannot afford to hire an attorney and if they cannot find free legal help,” Jacqueline M. Allen, an attorney with Dykema, the law firm that helped Texas Appleseed develop the toolkit, said Thursday.

McDonald said that one of the primary reasons property owners in Texas fail to reclaim more of the millions in assets seized annually by law enforcement is that they fail to show up. “Simply answering will prevent a default judgment and force the state to spend more time and resources to keep an innocent owner’s property,” she said.

In addition to the toolkit, Texas Appleseed and Dykema are getting behind two of the bills currently being discussed by the Legislature, both of which would repeal civil asset forfeiture and establish criminal asset forfeiture, which would require a higher level of proof from agencies hoping to seize property.

“Making the process criminal would put the onus on law enforcement to prove the property was part of a crime, instead of having an owner go to great legal lengths to prove the property is not contraband,” McDonald said.

Konni Burton, the author of the senate forfeiture bill supported by Texas Appleseed, called civil forfeiture a black mark on Texans’ civil rights. “Texas is known as a beacon of economic and personal liberty. We take our rights seriously here, none more so than our property rights,” Burton said. “Property rights are the foundation on which everything else is built.”

Burton’s bill, Senate Bill 380, has been referred to the Texas Senate’s State Affairs committee.