Despite Trump’s Threat, Texas Legislators from Both Parties Back End to Civil Forfeiture

Maybe not for long.
Maybe not for long. Illustration by 355A
Texas state Senators Konni Burton and Chuy Hinojosa aren’t going to be cowed by President Donald Trump, at least not about reforming civil forfeiture in Texas. Both senators want to fix the way the state deals with assets seized from people accused of crimes, even if the president recently promised Rockwall County Sheriff Harold Eavenson that he would “destroy” a state senator the sheriff said wanted to make it tougher on his office to seize assets. The sheriff wouldn’t name which senator he wanted destroyed.

“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. ... Unknown to many, including some lawmakers, a great threat to the property rights of Texans is staring us right in the face — our current system of civil asset forfeiture.”

Texas’ current civil forfeiture law, passed in 1989, allows the state’s law enforcement agencies to go around traditional due process and file legal actions against property that the agency believes is owned by a criminal or otherwise connected to criminal activity. It’s led to cases with names like State of Texas vs. One 2005 Chevrolet Pickup, State of Texas vs. 12 Gold Coins and United States of America vs. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton.

Burton and Hinojosa want to require law enforcement to prove that someone is a criminal before taking their property, because once seizure happens, the process to get anything back is expensive and time-consuming, even for someone who hasn’t been convicted of a crime.

“Right now, the standard that’s used [for forfeiture] is a preponderance of the evidence, and that’s a very low standard. We want to change that to ‘clear and convincing.’” Hinojosa said. “The second problem is due process: A lot of people who are not involved in the crime, have not committed a crime and haven’t been convicted of a crime have their property taken away based on allegations that their property was used in a crime.”

This is Burton’s second whack at fixing civil forfeiture. During the last legislative session, her bill, which would prohibit law enforcement agencies from taking property without a criminal conviction in almost all instances, didn’t make it out of committee. Hinojosa’s companion bill would limit the seizure of homes and cars when drugs or cash are found inside homes and cars.

Derek Cohen, a policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told the Observer earlier this year that he thinks civil forfeiture reform has a better shot this year than it did two years ago because of increased public awareness.

“One of the issues with perpetuation of civil forfeiture is simply that not many people know about it or are able to parse out what it really means,” Cohen said.

Over the last couple of years however, California, Nebraska and New Mexico have all severely limited the practice, joining 14 other states that have passed some kind of forfeiture reform.

As for Trump, Burton didn’t seem too worried as she dodged a question about the president’s comments.

“This is an issue that needs to be addressed,” Burton said.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young