In 2017, law enforcement across Texas seized more than $50 million in property, cash, and other assets from private citizens. They were able to do so by claiming these assets were linked to crime. While some of these seizures were taken using criminal forfeiture—that is, as part of cases where an individual was found guilty of a crime—others were taken using civil forfeiture. No criminal charges are required for civil asset forfeiture.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office makes no distinction in its records between civil and criminal forfeiture, so it is unknown how much property was taken from individuals not charged with a crime. Attempts by state legislators to force law enforcement to improve their reporting have repeatedly failed.
In 2016, Macario Hernandez was pulled over while driving a 2003 Chevrolet Silverado. Police found 13.5 grams of cannabis in his pocket. As a result, the truck was seized using civil asset forfeiture. The vehicle, however, did not belong to Macario; it had been loaned to him by his mother, Oralia Rodriguez. Macario’s girlfriend was having a difficult pregnancy, and Oralia had loaned her son the truck to make sure his girlfriend could visit the doctor.
“My sole intention was to help out,” explained Oralia, writing to local prosecutors. “Now I am in this situation of losing what I have worked very hard for. I am begging you. Please allow me to have my truck back.”
After seven weeks, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office agreed to give the vehicle back to Oralia after she agreed never to lend it to her son again. Nonetheless, Oralia had to pay $1,600 in fees in addition to storage and towing fees.
Summing up the problems with civil asset forfeiture in 2014, U.S. Circuit Judge Don Willett wrote, “A generation ago in America, asset forfeiture was limited to wresting ill-gotten gains from violent criminals. Today it has a distinctive ‘Alice in Wonderland’ flavor, victimizing innocent citizens who’ve done nothing wrong.”
In 2017, a coalition of state senators from both parties filed a series of bills which attempted to abolish, or at least rein in, civil asset forfeiture. The charge was led by state Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville). “The seizing and keeping of an individual’s property without a criminal conviction is in opposition to everything this country was founded upon, and it must change,” she said.
Faced with opposition from law enforcement agencies, these attempts failed. Burton lost her bid for reelection in November.
In Texas, the burden of proving innocence lies with the property owner in civil asset forfeiture cases. In the words of state Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), this is akin to forcing innocent owners to “prove a negative.”
Of the 1,000 forfeiture cases in Harris County in 2017, only four or five contested the cases in court. The reason for this, according to state Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston), is that people don’t know how to fight the government to get their property back. Also, many property owners cannot afford a lawyer.
For his part, Judge Willett is frustrated by the current situation. “One wonders if our colonial ancestors… would be astonished—watching the government seize then sell the property of guiltless citizens who have not been charged with any crime, much less convicted of one.”
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.