Constitutional Challenges to Civil Forfeiture Meet with Only Limited Success

Civil forfeiture cases involve a strange combination of civil and criminal law. They typically occur in connection with some sort of criminal investigation, but the law allows a civil forfeiture even in the absence of any related prosecution. The state is not bound by the same burden of proof in a forfeiture matter as in a criminal case. This has led to multiple claims that the state has seized property without proof of any connection to criminal activity that meets the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. Lawsuits alleging constitutional violations in connection with forfeiture matters, including a class action suit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a lawsuit by the Institute for Justice (IJ), have generally affirmed the state’s ability to seize property.

A federal class action lawsuit brought by the ACLU in east Texas alleged that police in Tenaha routinely pulled drivers over with little to no reasonable suspicion and compelled them to sign over cash in their possession to the city. Morrow, et al v. Washington, et al, No. 2:08-cv-00288, third am. complaint (E.D. Tex., Feb. 17, 2010). All of the plaintiffs were or appeared to be a member of a racial minority, or were traveling with someone who appeared to be a racial minority. They alleged that the stops, searches of their vehicles, and seizures of cash violated their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The city agreed to a settlement in August 2012, approved by the court in February 2013, that involved substantial changes to police procedures during traffic stops, but no damages paid to the plaintiffs. In certifying the case as a class action, the court had limited the case to declaratory and injunctive relief on the Fourteenth Amendment claims, so some plaintiffs filed separate lawsuits seeking monetary damages for Fourth Amendment violations. See Morrow v. Washington, et al, No. 2:11-cv-00467, am. complaint at 3 (E.D. Tex. Nov. 22, 2011).

In Houston, the titled owner of a truck that was the subject of a forfeiture case filed a counterclaim against the state with the assistance of the IJ. The man had sold his truck, but retained title while the buyer made payments to him. The buyer was arrested for DWI, and Houston police seized the truck. The “innocent owner” defense, in which the owner could attest that he knew nothing of the alleged illegal activity, was probably available, but he chose to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s forfeiture action. He alleged that the “innocent owner” defense violated his due process rights by forcing him to “prove a negative,” and that forfeiture laws gave police an incentive to deprive people of their property without legal justification.

The district court granted Harris County’s motion for summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. It held that the forfeiture statute and the “innocent owner” defense do not violate the owner’s due process rights. El-Ali v. Texas, No. 14-11-00613-CV, slip op. at 5 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.], Dec. 4, 2012).

For over twenty years, board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has draws on his experience as an FBI agent and a prosecutor in order to fight for Texas defendants’ constitutional rights. Our team works tirelessly to review cases for police misconduct and prosecutorial errors, in order to make sure that the state follows the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system. To schedule a confidential consultation regarding your case, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

Web Resources:

Morrow, et al v. Washington, et al (PACER registration required), No. 2:08-cv-00288, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Texas
Morrow v. Washington, et al (PACER registration required), No. 2:11-cv-00467, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Texas
El-Ali v. Texas, No. 14-11-00613-CV, Fourteenth Court of Appeals, Texas
More Blog Posts:

State and Federal Governments Use Civil Forfeiture to Seize Assets Outside of the Criminal Court System, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 26, 2013
DA’s Use of Private Contractor in Highway Drug Seizures and Forfeitures Causes Controversy, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 26, 2013


Contact Information