Texas Lawmakers Want to Make It Harder for the State to Take Stuff From People

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Civil asset forfeiture sounds reasonable enough on the outside. Police seize property belonging to people they suspect of being involved in criminal activity. (It was set up in the 1980s to help law enforcement seize drug-related items and cash.)

The thing is, here in Texas, where the law on asset forfeiture is notoriously loose, seized assets go into a civil proceeding and can be taken, whether you've been convicted of a crime or not.

When the 85th Biennial Texas Legislative Session convenes in January, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are going to wade into the issue once more to see if they can get some sort of civil asset forfeiture reform through the legislative process. This isn't their first attempt by any means.

State lawmakers have repeatedly tried to get a bill passed to make seizing property at least a little more difficult, without much luck. There have been actual bipartisan efforts to get such legislation slammed through in recent years, a rarity in this day and age of political divisiveness. However, local law enforcement tends to push back on this issue, possibly-maybe because local agencies get a lot of funding from asset forfeiture.

When other state legislatures have worked on passing laws to reform the practice, the lawmakers have been painted as radicals (New Mexico) or the law itself has been gutted and made utterly meaningless by the time it gets through the process (Pennsylvania.)

Texas law enforcement has also proved to be a bit delicate about this subject. This may be partly because there have been a number of stories over the years about local law enforcement in Texas abusing the forfeiture laws to collect property from people who just happened to be caught in its nets, as we've reported.

And it also could partially come from the fact that civil asset forfeiture is another way to get funding. (Over the course of a bitter election fight, the fact that outgoing Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson used asset forfeiture funds to buy office supplies came up repeatedly.)

This has made Texas law enforcement quite responsive when asset forfeiture laws even get discussed. In December 2014, when word went around that state Representative David Simpson, a Longview Republican, was just going to speak at a forum about asset forfeiture reform, the news prompted a crew of judges and sheriffs to charter a plane and fly to Austin to hear him, according to the Longview News-Journal. Simpson noted their trip to hear him speak was particularly weird since the law enforcement officials listened to his speech but didn't have time to talk with him.

But none of this seems to have discouraged Texas legislators. Soon, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are going once more into the breach.

Over in the state House, Representative Matt Schaefer, a Republican from Tyler, has filed a bill that revises the state's criminal procedure code so that the state has to prove with "a preponderance of evidence" that items in question can be legally seized. Schaefer's legislation, House Bill 155, is simply a refiling of legislation submitted by state Representative Charles Perry in the last session that got out of committee but never went to a vote in the full House.

And then there's the legislation filed by state Senator Juan Hinojosa, Senate Bill 156, and its companion, House Bill 344, filed by state Representative Terrry Canales. (Both are Democrats from McAllen.) The legislation these two have drafted takes an even stronger stance on asset forfeiture so that the state has to provide "clear and convincing" evidence that the property can be seized.

But state Senator Konni Burton, a Republican who lives in Colleyville, turned it up to 11 with Senate Bill 380, which proposes to do away with civil asset forfeiture entirely, replacing it with criminal asset forfeiture.

That change in wording is crucial. The key difference is that with criminal asset forfeiture, defendants have to be convicted of a crime and there must be proof that the property seized was connected to illegal activity. In other words, you can't just take people's stuff because you suspect they did something illegal.

Of course, filing bills proposing to make it harder for the state to take the property of people who haven't been convicted of crimes is one thing, but passing any of this is an entirely different matter. We'll see how it goes this time around.

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