Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) officers took possession of a 1,700-acre property in west Texas, known as the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch, in April 2014, about three months after a state judge ruled in the state’s favor in a forfeiture action that it brought in 2012. The ranch was owned by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a sect that broke off from the Mormon Church. Law enforcement raided the property in 2008 amid allegations of child abuse, leading to several criminal prosecutions and hundreds of child welfare cases. The state’s forfeiture action claimed that the use of the ranch in the commission of various criminal offenses rendered it “contraband” under state law.
In March 2008, a person claiming to be a 16-year-old girl called a child protective services hotline. She said that she lived at the YFZ ranch, that she was married, and that her husband had beaten and raped her. Authorities obtained a warrant and searched the ranch on April 3, 2008. The following day, Child Protective Services (CPS) workers removed 167 children from the property. By Tuesday, April 8, 534 women and children had either left YFZ Ranch voluntarily or been removed by CPS.
Law enforcement and child protection authorities alleged that members of the FLDS church were grooming girls to marry older men at a young age. Eventually several men would either be convicted of or plead no contest to sexual assault-related charges. FLDS leader Warren Jeffs was convicted of sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault of children in 2011 and sentenced to life imprisonment plus 20 years. In May 2008, a Texas appellate court ruled that the seizure of almost 500 children by CPS violated state law. In re Steed, No. 03-08-00235-CV, slip op. (Tex. App.–Austin 2008). The Texas Supreme Court denied the state’s petition for review. In re Tex. Dept. of Family Protec. Serv., 255 S.W.3d 613 (Tex. 2008).
The State of Texas filed a Notice of Seizure in Schleicher County, where the YFZ Ranch is located, in late 2012. Texas v. 2420 Co. Road 300, El Dorado, Texas, notice of seizure (Tex. Dist. Ct., Schleicher Co., Nov. 28, 2012). The state alleged that the property was “contraband,” as defined by the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. It claimed, for example, that the property was “used in the commission of…any first or second degree felony under the Penal Code.” Tex. R. Crim. P. Art. 59.01(2)(A)(i). The state further alleged that the property was used in the commission of offenses related to money laundering, Tex. R. Crim. P. Art. 59.01(2)(B)(iv); organized crime, Tex. R. Crim. P. Art. 59.01(2)(B)(xii); and other offenses.
The owners of YFZ Ranch reportedly did not appear at a hearing in January 2014, resulting in a default judgment of forfeiture for the state. DPS officers took possession of the property in April. They said that only eight adults were still living there. The state reportedly plans to auction the property, which the county tax appraiser valued at nearly $20 million in 2012.
A person who has been charged with an alleged criminal offense should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney, who can help them understand their constitutional and procedural rights, and work to protect those rights through all phases of the process. 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 discuss your case.
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Constitutional Challenges to Civil Forfeiture Meet with Only Limited Success, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, August 2, 2013