Civil Liberties

IJ Files Asset Forfeiture Suit in Texas


As part of its new campaign against abusive asset forfeiture policies, the Institute for Justice has filed a lawsuit in Texas, home to some of the worst forfeiture laws in the country. From the press release:

…law enforcement agencies in Texas and many other states get to keep the cash and other assets that they seize giving them a direct financial incentive to abuse this power and the rights of property owners.  In Texas, forfeiture funds can even go to pay police salaries.  This establishes a perverse incentive structure under which the more property police seize, the nicer their facilities, equipment and automobiles—and the bigger their personal paychecks.

And the better their office margaritas.

Civil asset forfeiture policies rest on the legal absurdity that property can be guilty of a crime. IJ's client in the case is Zaher El-Ali, an immigrant and 30-year resident of Houston who makes his living restoring and reselling homes and cars. Here's his story:

In 2004, Ali sold a 2004 Chevrolet Silverado truck to a man who paid him $500 down and agreed to pay the rest on credit.  As with all cars bought on credit, Ali held the title to the car until he was paid in full and also registered the car in his name.  In July 2009, the buyer was driving the Silverado and was pursued by a police officer on suspicion of drunk driving.  When stopped by the police, he was arrested for DWI.  Because this was his third DWI arrest, he was imprisoned, pled guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison.

After the man's arrest, the Silverado was seized for civil forfeiture.  It has been sitting in the Harris County impound lot ever since.  In July 2009, Ali wrote to the district attorney, telling him of his interest in the truck and attaching copies of the title and registration naming Ali as the owner and asking for its return.  The driver has been in jail since July and had stopped making payments.  The government responded by filing a civil forfeiture action against the truck:  State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado.  Through the filing of counterclaims in the case, Ali wants not only to get his truck back but also to stop the state from abusing forfeiture law against all Texas citizens.

My Reason feature on asset foreiture here. Here's video of IJ attorneys announcing the lawsuit: