Following the May 17, 2015 shootout at a Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents meeting in a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas, more than 170 motorcycle club members were charged with engaging in organized crime. Many of those alleged offenders also had their motorcycles confiscated, most likely to be sold at auction by McLennan County through civil forfeiture procedures.
Civil forfeiture is the legal process by which law enforcement officers can take assets from people who are suspected of criminal activity, and most people generally assumed that it was largely used in cases involving property purchased with profits from illegal drugs. However, more and more law enforcement agencies across the country have been utilizing in dubious cases—many of which never even result in the person whose property has been confiscated being convicted or even facing criminal charges.
San Antonio Vehicle Forfeiture Lawyer
Has your motor vehicle been seized by law enforcement under Texas forfeiture law? You can give yourself the best chance of recovering your possessions by having experienced legal counsel.
The Bexar County vehicle forfeiture attorneys at Goldstein & Orr have defended clients against forfeiture actions in state and federal courts throughout the Lone Star State as well as across the country. You can have our firm review your case by calling (210) 226-1463 right now to take advantage of a free, confidential consultation.
Texas Vehicle Forfeiture Overview
- How can the state take motor vehicles under state law?
- What are the ways that federal agencies can confiscate vehicles?
- How can people get their property back?
The state government is allowed to confiscate property it believes was used, intended to be used, or reaped from the commission of certain crimes. These crimes are established under Chapter 59 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
This property is referred to as “contraband,” and it may include vehicles or property of any nature—including real, personal, tangible, or intangible—that is allegedly:
- Used in the commission of certain felony offenses
- Used or intended to be used in the commission of certain felony or misdemeanor offenses
- Proceeds gained from the commission of certain felony or misdemeanor offenses
- Acquired with proceeds gained from the commission certain felony or misdemeanor offenses or a crime of violence
- Used to facilitate or intended to be used to facilitate the commission of a certain felony offenses
These seizures may be made with or without warrants. The asset itself is listed as the defendant in many civil forfeiture cases, which has led to very unusual case titles such as State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado or State of Texas v. One Gold Crucifix.
This means that if your vehicle has been confiscated, it could be listed as the defendant and you will need to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that you were not a party to the criminal offense giving rise to the forfeiture. Under Texas Code of Criminal Procedure § 59.02(h)(1), the owner will also need to prove that the contraband was either:
- stolen from the owner or interest holder before being used in the commission of the offense giving rise to the forfeiture
- purchased with money stolen from the owner or interest holder or proceeds from the sale of property stolen from the owner or interest holder
- used or intended to be used without the effective consent of the owner or interest holder in the commission of the offense giving rise to the forfeiture
Federal agencies also have the power to seize vehicles and other assets under federal forfeiture laws established in Title 18 U.S. Code Chapter 46. The United States Department of Justice lists three types of federal forfeiture:
- Criminal Forfeiture — In these types of cases, the vehicles or property that is subject to forfeiture is named in the same indictment charging the alleged offender with a criminal offense. The government must prove the alleged offender’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in order to forfeit the property. While the seizure of the property through criminal forfeiture generally does not occur until after the property has been forfeited, there may be exceptions in cases involving alleged Controlled Substances Act (CSA), Money Laundering Control Act (MCLA), or Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) violations.
- Civil Forfeiture — Unlike criminal forfeitures, civil forfeiture actions do not require criminal charges against the vehicle or property owners. The burden of proof for the government is much lower in these cases, and the property is the defendant.
- Administrative Forfeiture — Any forfeiture in which motor vehicles or property are seized and nobody contests the forfeiture are considered administrative because they are processed solely by the agency that seized the vehicles or property. Only certain types of property can be subject to this type of forfeiture. This includes prohibited imports, conveyances used to import, transport, or store a controlled substance, monetary instruments, and any other property that does not exceed $500,000 in value.
While local and state police agencies used to be able to bring in federal officers so seize assets in an effort to get around state laws, United States Attorney General Eric Holder prohibited local and state police in January 2015 from using federal law to seize property without warrants or criminal charges. Unfortunately, this decision had little effect on Texas which generally has fairly broad civil forfeiture laws.
While most everybody understands that alleged offenders in criminal cases are presumed innocent until proven guilty, forfeiture proceedings are remarkably different. Generally, the motor vehicle or property itself is presumed guilty, and it is the owner who is required to prove why his or her property forfeited.
Some of the most common defenses in these cases may include, but are not limited to:
- Innocent Owner — Perhaps the most commonly utilized defense, this is when the alleged offender argues that he or she had no knowledge that his or her property was used or would be use in the commission of a criminal offense.
- Family Violence — This exception provided under Texas Code of Criminal Procedure § 59.05(c) states that a victim of family violence was unable to prevent his or her spouse from committing the criminal offense that led to the forfeiture.
- No Criminal Charges — An alleged offender may be able to regain confiscated if her or she is acquitted or has his or her criminal case dismissed.
While these types of cases can certainly be difficult, they are not altogether impossible to achieve favorable conclusions to. Despite the immense power granted to law enforcement agencies, judges and juries will still recognize when a person has had his or her vehicle or other property taken without proper legal cause.
In March 2014, Texas Supreme Court Justice Don R. Willett authored a blistering dissent in the court’s denial of a petition for review in the case of Zaher A. El–Ali, who had his truck seized through civil forfeiture because the person he was selling it to, Roberto Faustino, was arrested for three felony offenses, including driving while intoxicated (DWI), evading arrest in a motor vehicle, and possessing cocaine. While Faustino had been in possession of the truck for nearly five years, he was still in the process of making payments to El–Ali. Willett wrote that the case “evokes less Chevy than Kafka.”
“A generation ago in America, asset forfeiture was limited to wresting ill-gotten gains from violent criminals,” Willett wrote. “Today, it has a distinctive ‘Alice in Wonderland’ flavor, victimizing innocent citizens who’ve done nothing wrong.”
One wonders if our colonial ancestors, transported to 2014, would be astonished—watching government seize, then sell, the property of guiltless citizens who have not been charged with any crime, much less convicted of one. And unsurprisingly, civil forfeiture, once focused on the illicit goodies of rich drug dealers, now disproportionately ensnares those least capable of protecting themselves, poor Texans who usually capitulate without a fight because mounting a defense is too costly.
Find a Vehicle Forfeiture Lawyer in San Antonio
If your motor vehicle was seized by law enforcement despite you never having been convicted of any crime, make sure that you have skilled and knowledgeable legal representation. Goldstein & Orr have experience will all sorts of motions, including those for return of property, representing innocent owners, and dismissing civil and criminal forfeiture actions.
Our firm fights for clients in state and federal forfeiture cases. We will provide a thorough evaluation of your case when you call (210) 226-1463 to schedule a free consultation.