Civil forfeiture bill should be supported by all

Published 2:08 pm Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Last week the Texas Observer reported there is a bi-partisan effort to end most civil forfeiture in Texas.

This is a good thing and I hope our local representatives support the effort.

Civil forfeiture is legalized theft. The practice allows law enforcement to seize any private property they can claim to link to crime. This includes cash, cars, property—literally anything at all. The rub is, the owner of the property does not have to be found guilty of any crime. For instance, the Observer reported that one man had $10,000 in cash he planned to spend on funeral arrangements for his dying aunt. The man drove from Austin to South Texas when he was stopped and the cash seized by Jim Wells sheriff’s deputies who accused him of money laundering.

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The man in question, Javier Gonzales, signed away the cash because he was threatened with criminal charges that would have been costly to fight unless he turned over the money. Often this is the case—sheriffs offices target out of town travelers and they threaten detention and criminal charges unless travelers sign away their cars, cash or whatever other property law enforcement demands. This is a shakedown, plain and simple, and it is legal. The Observer also reports that due to poor record keeping, reporters have no idea of how many items are seized across the state through this practice—though it seems to be popular.

To add insult to injury, there are cases where law enforcement has seized property owned by people who have never been accused of any crime at all. In 2014, the Observer reported on the case of State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado. The Silverado in question was seized after the driver was arrested for cocaine possession and drunk driving. The problem was, the driver didn’t own the car—a Houston used car salesman owned it and the driver was making payments on it. So, if the owner, Zaher El-Ali, wanted to get a car he owned back from the state of Texas, he would have had to hire an attorney and sue the state.

Indeed, citizens can appeal civil forfeiture but they have to pay for their own attorneys—or face government prosecutors pro se—which means fighting forfeiture is costly and time consuming. In the case of the Silverado, El-Ali did fight the state and he lost—twice.

The proposed bill, SB 380, is opposed by law enforcement agencies because they use civil to fund their departments. However, State Sen. Konni Burton, a Republican from Colleyville, is right when she calls the practice an abrogation of basic rights. While the government does have the right to punish offenders and while law enforcement agencies should have a right to seize assets acquired through or used in illegal activities, criminal courts and a judge and jury ought to be the arbitrators in such matters. Without any oversight, it is far too easy to simply steal money from law-abiding citizens on thin pretext.

Our lawmakers need to take a stand against this overreach and protect the rights of private citizens. For Republicans, who often proclaim their fealty to the rights of private citizens against government overreach, this should be a no-brainer—but we’ll see.