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What the Supreme Court’s Ruling on Civil Forfeiture Means for Texas Criminal Defendants

We all learned in school that everyone is “innocent until proven guilty” and that no person can be punished without “due process of law.” But the reality of the Texas criminal justice system is not always that simple. In many cases, law enforcement can seize the property of individuals who are merely suspected of a crime. And the police may keep–and sell–that property even if no charges are ever filed against the owner.

This is known as “civil asset forfeiture.” Essentially, all the police need to do is say they “suspect” money or other property (such as a car) may be tied to criminal activity. Prosecutors can then file suit to declare the property “forfeit.” The burden is then on the owner to fight the seizure in court and prove it was not linked to any crimes.

According to a report in the Texas Tribune, law enforcement throughout the state made over $50 million from civil asset forfeitures in 2017 alone. And while many people have criticized the widespread use of forfeiture as nothing more than “policing for profit,” efforts in the state legislature to restrict or curb these practices have died under pressure from prosecutors and law enforcement groups.

Eighth Amendment “Incorporated” Against the States

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, recently weighed in on the subject of civil asset forfeiture. The specific case before the justices, Timbs v. Indiana, involved a man who pleaded guilty to state criminal charges of dealing in controlled substances. When police arrested the defendant, they also seized his vehicle, which had been paid for not with the proceeds of any criminal activity, but rather with insurance money the defendant lawfully received after his father’s death. Nevertheless, the State of Indiana initiated civil asset forfeiture proceedings to keep the vehicle.

An Indiana trial judge ruled against the state, holding that seizing a $42,000 SUV from a defendant convicted of a crime that only carried a maximum fine of $10,000 amounted to an “excessive fine,” which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Indiana Supreme Court then reversed the trial judge, holding the Eighth Amendment only applied to the federal government and not the states.

But the U.S. Supreme Court said the Indiana Supreme Court was wrong. In an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court said the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits states from depriving a person of property “without due process of law,” effectively “incorporated” the Eighth Amendment against the states. This means that civil asset forfeitures may constitute an excessive fine “when they are at least partially punitive,” although the Court was not asked to decide whether the particular forfeiture in this case was unconstitutional.

Contact a League City or Galveston Criminal Defense Attorney Today

The Supreme Court’s decision opens the door for people accused of crimes in Texas to challenge the forfeiture of their property to the state. If you have been charged with a crime and are faced with the loss of your property, it is imperative you speak with a qualified Houston criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates if you need advice or assistance today or call (281) 280-0100 .