State and Federal Governments Use Civil Forfeiture to Seize Assets Outside of the Criminal Court System

Law enforcement at the state and federal level may use civil forfeiture proceedings to take ownership of property allegedly connected, however tangentially, to criminal activity. Because such a proceeding is civil in nature, it is not subject to the same strict standards of proof as a criminal case. A civil forfeiture is usually filed as an in rem proceeding, meaning that the lawful owner of the property in question, along with any other interested parties, is not the defendant in the case. The owner and other interested parties are entitled to notice of a forfeiture proceeding, but most people are unaware of their rights in such a case. Civil forfeitures can be rather lucrative for law enforcement, leading to widespread accusations of corruption and abuse. Understanding the civil forfeiture system, and preparing a response to a forfeiture case, is critical in criminal matters involving seized property.

Legal authority for civil forfeitures comes from multiple sources. At the federal level, the government may seek the forfeiture of real or personal property that it alleges is “involved” in a wide range of federal crimes. 18 U.S.C. § 981, 21 U.S.C. § 881. Property subject to forfeiture includes not only actual contraband, such as drugs, but also any property the government believes was involved in the alleged crime. This could include real property, motor vehicles, and money allegedly connected to criminal acts or criminal conspiracies. The government’s authority in a civil case is expansive, including the right to move to stay a case if it is adversely affecting an ongoing criminal investigation or prosecution. 18 U.S.C. § 981(g).

In rem civil forfeiture proceedings have unusual names. A recently-filed Texas case involving two motor vehicles demonstrates how the government presents such a case. United States v. 1997 BMW Z3 Roadster, et al, No. 1:13-cv-00613, ver. complaint (W.D. Tex. Jul. 23, 2013). The Travis County Sheriff’s Office and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration seized two vehicles, a BMW Roadster and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, during a raid on a suspected methamphetamine distribution source. After an investigation that included surveillance and undercover narcotics purchases, law enforcement agent executed a search warrant in February 2013, allegedly seizing drugs, firearms, and vehicles. The subject of the investigation pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute, and the government filed the forfeiture action four days after his sentencing.

In another case, the government sought forfeiture of a large amount of cash seized during a traffic stop for speeding, but made no direct connection between the money and further criminal activity. United States v. $101,520, No. 1:13-cv-00240, ver. complaint (W.D. Tex., Mar. 22, 2013). During the traffic stop, officers reportedly became suspicious of the driver and her daughter, and obtained verbal consent to search the vehicle. They found over $100,000 in cash concealed in juice pouches. The complaint claims that the money was involved in “unlawful drug or money laundering,” id. at 6, but gives no indication of any criminal charges filed against the driver or passenger. It only cites the two women’s alleged income, which is far below the amount of cash allegedly in their possession.

Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has practiced law in west Texas since 1992. He previously worked as both an Assistant District Attorney and an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Houston. He fights for the constitutional rights of Texas defendants, making certain that law enforcement and the courts respect his clients’ constitutional rights and abide by 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.

More Blog Posts:

DUI Arrest Demonstrates How “Civil” Penalties May Result from Criminal Cases, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, June 11, 2013
Texas Man Sentenced to Just Over One Year in Prison for Fraudulent Electronics Scheme, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 3, 2013


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