Texan Challenges Civil Forfeiture Law

Police can keep your cash, car and other property, regardless of whether you've been convicted of – let alone charged with – a crime.

The aforementioned Senate Committee report notes that "what was once a crime fighting and law enforcement tool has since become a profit-making, personal account for some law enforcement officials...Instances of abuse in both the confiscation and spending of asset forfeiture proceeds have increased at alarming rates."

Examples cited include a party the Montgomery County DA's office threw at the county fair in East Texas in 2005 at which forfeiture funds covered the booze and a margarita maker. A district attorney in West Texas upped the ante, taking his staff and a judge to Hawaii for a so-called training seminar. Another DA "spent thousands of dollars on commercials for his re-election campaign."

Citing these and other flagrant abuses of power, a Virginia-based libertarian legal group, the Institute for Justice, believes the law as written practically begs for corruption.

...and drugs from Watson's BMW.
Courtesy of Montgomery County District Attorney's Office
...and drugs from Watson's BMW.
Zaher El-Ali is challenging the state's civil forfeiture law.
Courtesy of Institute for Justice
Zaher El-Ali is challenging the state's civil forfeiture law.

According to a report the institute issued in 2010, "Texas' lax civil forfeiture laws dangerously shift law enforcement priorities away from the fair and impartial administration of justice and toward the pursuit of property and revenue."

The institute's analysis of Texas law enforcement budgets for 2007 showed that "for the average agency, forfeiture revenue represents 14 percent of its budget."

While the law expressly prohibits agencies from using forfeiture funds to pay salaries, that can be achieved indirectly. For example, the Harris County District Attorney's Office's 2010 audit of forfeiture funds shows that $47,602 was spent on furniture and $250,693 was spent on "office supplies." That frees up money that can be used to hire additional staff.

Most busts don't involve vast fortunes, but there's an almost nonstop stream of hundred- or thousand-dollar busts. When it's combined with the proceeds from vehicles and other property sold at auction, authorities can collect a windfall. Between September 1, 2009, and August 31, 2010, the Harris County District Attorney's Office collected $752,877 in asset forfeiture funds. (In August 2010, the DA's office reported $8.6 million in total forfeiture funds ever collected.)

So institute lawyer Scott Bullock mined court records for the perfect test case with which to challenge the law's constitutionality and drum up public awareness with a sympathetic protagonist. He wound up with Zaher El-Ali as his organization's poster boy.

It turns out he could have done a better job.
_____________________

Institute literature describes El-Ali as a model citizen, a Jordanian immigrant who came to the States with nothing and eventually built up a successful real-estate and auto-sales portfolio.

He was presented as a squeaky-clean fellow who did a favor by financing a 2004 Chevy Silverado for a guy who later got popped for driving drunk, and now El-Ali was going to lose the truck despite the fact that he held the title and hadn't been behind the wheel.

Here's what happened: In July 2009, the driver, Roberto Faustino, found himself flying down the wrong side of Market Street Road in Jacinto City, heading straight for Jacinto City Police Officer Juan Perez.

Perez swerved off the road and flipped on the overheads and siren, but the truck kept on going for a mile and a half before pulling over. According to court documents, the 51-year-old Faustino was red-eyed and reeking of alcohol. He had an open bottle of Bud Light in one cup holder and a baggie of cocaine in the other. Another baggie of coke was stuffed in the ashtray.

This arrest was DWI number seven for Faustino. While the Harris County District Attorney's Office pursued criminal charges against Faustino, prosecutors also filed a notice of seizure and intended forfeiture. Officially, the case was styled State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado.

The case got attention in The Economist and Reason; El-Ali even penned an opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle describing his Kafkaesque nightmare.

"Apart from a speeding ticket, I have never been in any trouble with the police, so I was shocked to find out about a system that allows the police to seize my car, sell it and use the money to fund their budget, all without so much as charging me with any crime," he wrote.

For some reason, no one ever bothered to verify El-Ali's claim. If they had, they would have found out he wasn't telling the truth about his past — namely, that he's a convicted wife-beater.

In 2000, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault of a family member. Per the Harris County Sheriff's Office's offense report: El-Ali walked up to his wife while she was washing dishes in the kitchen of their east Houston home, spat in her face and then began choking her with both hands. This happened in front of the couple's three children. He then freed up one of his hands so he could punch her on the left side of her neck, where a doctor had previously found a blood clot. He kept this up until she passed out. As he fled the scene, he shouted, "I killed her. I killed her. I am so happy."

When the Press raised this issue with El-Ali's lawyer, Bullock said he had no idea his client had a record. (El-Ali was in Jordan and unavailable for comment.)

Curiously, institute literature also omits the fact that Faustino — the man El-Ali sold the truck to — wasn't just some stranger; he was a Mexican citizen who had leased a 750-square-foot shack from El-Ali since 1996.

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
4 comments
PenHead
PenHead

why would you write an article about challenging civil forfeiture laws and concentrate on deframating a man's character because of some domestic dispute he had in the past? Zaher El-Ali was just trying to make an honest buck by selling his car, he didn't break any laws and the cops still seized his property. Zaher El-Ali couldn't even afford a lawyer and I'm thankful that someone stood up for him and the unfortunate circumstances that fell in his lap. Craig Malisow youre a piece of shit -- quit your job and go work for the crooked fucking cops!

marcy
marcy

As this article also points out the police confuse "unusual" with suspicious.  For example, if I were found to be carrying around 500 gift cards totaling $100,000 in apparent face value the police would consider that to be "unusual" and demand an explanation even though there should be no need for someone to explain why they are in possession of $100K of gift cards, a $100k bank account or $100k in cash.  

 

It is certainly unusual to be have any of those but it would also be unusual to pull over a woman with one leg, one arm and red hair.  That shouldn't demand an explanation either.

 

Drive around with a dozen semi-auto rifles, your prescriptions and $50k in cash in your trunk and it would be an almost certainty that the police would seize it all if they found it, they need nothing more than their belief that by golly someone with a lot of guns and cash MUST be up to something criminal.

 

Profiling of another sort.

 

marcy
marcy

The police have been turned into pirates, it's bad policy to not only let the state take it but actually let the police agency that seized it keep it.  Pirate booty isn't what the police should be after.

TOLDYA
TOLDYA

Montgomery County = Facism the end

 
Houston Concert Tickets
Loading...