AUSTIN (KXAN) — The latest step to curb “civil asset forfeiture” played out in a Texas House subcommittee Wednesday. A select group of lawmakers will hear public testimony on a bill that is expected to make it harder for law enforcement to keep seized property from people suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity.
Critics say the practice creates a near impossible situation for someone to get their property back and it stays in the hands of law enforcement.
In the early ’90s, Ed Heimlich was convicted of stealing $5,000 from his own company. After five months in jail, he kept fighting state attorneys and a judge overturned the conviction. He says most people don’t have the time or the resources to fight back; property is seized and it never comes back.
“Anybody that they point a finger at is a bad guy. We’re not bad guys. We’re people and we have a right to due process of law,” said Heimlich.
A select group of lawmakers now looks at bills that would shift the burden of proof to state attorneys or ban property seizure for most civil charges altogether.
Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, filed HB 155, which would shift the burden of proof to the state of Texas when keeping seized property. Right now, to get property back, a person accused of a crime has the burden to prove that property was not used for a crime.
HB 323, on the other hand, would require the law enforcement agency to have “clear and convincing” evidence to hold property. The bill, authored by the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburgh, would make the law enforcement agency pay the court cost, attorney fees and storage fees for seized property instead of the accused person.
HB 1364, from Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would repeal civil assert provisions and only allow it for criminal charges.
“It’s one of our most effective tools to combat narcotic trafficking,” said Jackson County Sheriff AJ Louderback. He says a major aspect of fighting organized crime is seizing resources and there are checks and balances to make sure they aren’t taking property from innocent people.
“You’ve got a district attorney that will make a decision whether or not to file the seizure paperwork. You’ve got chiefs. You’ve got sheriffs. You’ve got administration that looks at it. You’ve got accountability through reports every year on what you have seized,” said Sheriff Louderback.
Earlier this year, President Trump weighed in on the proposal to require a conviction last month, promising to destroy’s the lawmaker who backed the plan.
Sheriff Harold Eavenson from Rockwall County told him, “We’ve got a state senator in Texas who was talking about introducing legislation to require convictions before we can receive that forfeiture. And I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”
President Trump responded, “Who is the state senator? Want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career.”
Eavenson refused to name the lawmaker and said he did not take the President’s threat seriously.