Asset Forfeiture Reform in Texas
AUSTIN – Some Texas lawmakers are calling for change to civil asset forfeiture and, on Tuesday, attorney Steve Jumes weighed in on the issue during a Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing at the state capitol.
Jumes, a partner at Varghese Summersett and a nationally recognized asset forfeiture attorney, was invited to testify by state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 1863 calling for reform.
Civil Asset Forfeiture
Civil asset forfeiture is a legal tool that allows the government to seize and keep money and property believed to be linked to illegal activity – even if the owner is never convicted or even charged with a crime. This practice has proved to be lucrative for law enforcement and, in some cases, has led to abuses of power. For example, in 2013 Tarrant County retained approximately $4.35 million in forfeiture proceeds.
Proposed Legislation would Reform Asset Forfeitures in Texas
Burton’s bill would require a criminal conviction before assets could be forfeited. The Criminal Justice Committee has been charged with finding the best way to protect public safety and private property rights. Legislation to limit civil asset forfeiture has been introduced in more than 20 states. Some states, including New Mexico, have already passed more stringent laws requiring a criminal conviction before assets can be forfeited.
During the hearing, Jumes was among a half-dozen people called to testify, including prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and public policy specialists. The hearing, which was chaired by State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, lasted nearly two hours and was a lively exchange between the panel and the witnesses. The central points of contention stemmed from whether current forfeiture procedures do enough to protect citizens’ private property rights.
Steve Jumes Testifies in front of Senate Criminal Justice Committee
Jumes told the Criminal Justice Committee he is concerned not only about the misuse of forfeited funds, but that the procedure presents insurmountable barriers for non-wealthy people. They can’t afford to pay an attorney to get their property back, even if they are innocent.
“The overwhelming economic reality is that clients cannot afford to battle the case,” Jumes said. “People are priced out of the system.”
Jumes said he believes the procedure should allow for the appointment of an attorney and a higher standard of proof. For example, he said, forfeitures are often based on flimsy, circumstantial evidence – such as a drug dog barking at a stack of cash when no narcotics are found.
“If money is packaged a certain way and a dog sniffs it and barks, bang,” Jumes told the panel. “Courts back that up all the time.”
Jumes also pointed out that, even when drugs are discovered, the value of the property seized is grossly disproportionate to amount of contraband. This practice is particularly damaging to loved ones who depend on the seized property, such as a family vehicle.
“I have multiple clients who have spouses trapped in the system and they have to buy their own car back [from the state],” Jumes said.
Senator Burton’s bill is expected to be debated in the upcoming legislative session. Watch the full August 23 Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing here.