Anecdotes of civil forfeiture abuse in Texas abound. The most egregious example from recent years probably comes from the tiny East Texas town of Tenaha (population 1,160), where the district attorney and local police teamed up to shake down innocent out-of-town motorists for cash and other valuables worth millions. Near the border, cops were wont to focus enforcement efforts on catching the large amounts of cash headed back to Mexico, all the while more or less ignoring the drugs and weapons flowing the other way; inevitably, innocents were caught up in the dragnet. In 2012, Fort Worth cops kept or attempted to keep 15 cars, trucks, and SUVs seized from TCU students and others involved in a university-centered marijuana ring.
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But the real danger of the practice, which allows cops to take possession of ill-gotten gains by filing a lawsuit against it (e.g. State of Texas vs. Three Thousand Three Hundred Twenty-Two Dollars in United States Currency), is not in the flagrant abuses but the insidious way it subverts due process and other protections built into the criminal justice system. The property owner in a civil forfeiture case -- in contrast to a defendant in a criminal case -- has no right to an attorney; he can hire one, but it will be costly and may not be worth it, since the legal bill will often exceed the value of the seized property. There is also no presumption of innocence. It's up to the property owner to prove that his stuff isn't tainted by illegal activity, rather than the state's burden to prove that it is.More »