Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial law enforcement practice throughout the country. In many jurisdictions, it allows police to seize property that they allege is connected to criminal activity, even if the owner has not been convicted of a crime. Federal law enforcement officials often cooperate with state and local officials and then split the forfeiture proceeds in a process known as “adoption.” During the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) limited the use of federal adoption, but the new Attorney General (AG) reversed this policy earlier this year. This led to an amendment to the 2018 federal spending bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, sponsored by a diverse bipartisan group of legislators, denying funding to the DOJ for forfeiture-related activities barred under President Obama. The House approved the amendment and passed the entire bill, which now awaits action in the Senate. An effort to reform Texas criminal statutes regarding asset forfeiture earlier this year was not successful.
The idea behind asset forfeiture is to deprive criminals of the proceeds of their crimes, but in practice it often involves the seizure of property with little due process. Under federal law, civil forfeiture allows the government to take title to seized property without an underlying criminal conviction. 18 U.S.C. § 981. The owner of the property is typically not named as a party in a civil forfeiture case. Instead, it is treated as an in rem proceeding. Texas law also allows civil forfeiture and states that civil pleading rules apply. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Art. 59.05(a). A bill introduced during the 2017 Texas legislative session, S.B. 380, would have required a criminal conviction in forfeiture cases, but the bill never advanced out of committee.
Federal adoption procedures allow the federal government to reimburse local law enforcement for the cost of forfeiture proceedings and to split the proceeds from forfeiture cases with local agencies. 28 U.S.C. § 524(c). This has allegedly led to situations in which state and local law enforcement officials in jurisdictions with strict laws limiting asset forfeiture can operate under more lenient federal forfeiture procedures.