Civil forfeiture is a type of legal proceeding that allows the state to seize assets it believes have been used in the commission of a crime. Police and prosecutors can pursue a civil forfeiture action regardless of whether the property owner or anyone else is convicted of the suspected offense. A law enacted in Minnesota in May 2014 protects the rights of property owners by making a conviction of the underlying offense a prerequisite for a civil forfeiture claim. Although the property owner does not need to be the person convicted, the law provides an important check on the state’s ability to seize assets.
In most states and under federal law, civil forfeiture is an in rem proceeding brought against one or more pieces of property, and it is therefore completely separate from any criminal prosecution. The owner of the property and the criminal defendant, if there is one, are not always considered necessary parties. Property owners must affirmatively assert their rights in court, which can involve substantial time and expense. An acquittal of the crime allegedly associated with the property does not necessarily affect the forfeiture case.
A common example of a civil forfeiture proceeding involves a police officer finding a large amount of cash during a search of a vehicle, impounding it based on suspicion that carrying cash means involvement in drug dealing, and bringing an action for forfeiture of the cash. Since civil forfeiture proceedings are not criminal in nature, the state must prove by a preponderance of the evidence, or sometimes by clear and convincing evidence, that the property at issue was used in the commission of a crime. This is a much lower burden of proof than the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal matters, and it has resulted in people losing substantial amounts of money, their cars, or even their homes.
Texas law identifies any property used in the commission of various felonies or misdemeanors as “contraband.” Tex. Code Crim. P. Art. 59.01(2). It includes a provision called the “innocent owner” defense, which states that property is not subject to forfeiture if the owner can prove by a preponderance of evidence that he or she had no knowledge of the alleged criminal act, and that there was no reasonable expectation of knowledge. Id. at 59.02(c). Aside from this defense, a property owner must attempt to prove that the property was not used in the commission of an offense. The “innocent owner” defense still puts the burden on the property owner to prove a negative: that he or she did not know about a criminal offense that the state might not have ever proved occurred.
Minnesota’s governor signed SF 874 into law on May 6, 2014, and it took effect on August 1. The bill modifies the state’s civil forfeiture statute to require a conviction, guilty plea, or dismissal of charges in exchange for providing information in drug cases. After establishing one of these conditions, the state must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the property was used in the commission of a crime, or that it consists of proceeds from the offense.
A person who is facing charges for an alleged criminal offense should seek the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney, who can help them understand their constitutional and procedural rights and help prepare the best possible defense of their case. Criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has represented west Texas defendants for more than two decades. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you.
More Blog Posts:
State of Texas Seizes Mormon Sect’s West Texas Ranch in Forfeiture Case, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 14, 2014
Hearing on Civil Asset Forfeiture Takes a Strange Turn, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, December 13, 2013
Constitutional Challenges to Civil Forfeiture Meet with Only Limited Success, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, August 2, 2013
Photo credit: By Unnamed Federal Works Agency photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.