Pubdate: Sat, 11 Jun 2016
Source: Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Copyright: 2016 Austin American-Statesman
Note: Letters MUST be 150 words or less
Author: Chuck Lindell

Texas Supreme Court


High Court: Civil-Asset Forfeiture Is Not Subject to Criminal Court Rules.

Law enforcement can seize private property that was used in the 
commission of a crime, even if evidence of wrongdoing was illegally 
obtained by police, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Because the process of seizing property takes place in civil court, 
property owners aren't protected by criminal court rules that call 
for evidence to be tossed out if it was obtained in an 
unconstitutional search or seizure, the unanimous court ruling said.

The ruling resolves a lingering legal question - whether the process 
known as civil-asset forfeiture is governed by the "exclusionary 
rule," which can require criminal courts to throw out evidence for 
lack of a search warrant or other defect.

"We hold definitively that it is not. Under our holding, trial courts 
- - and this court - considering civil-forfeiture proceedings in the 
future will not need" to determine that evidence was seized in a 
constitutionally protected way, Justice Jeffrey Brown wrote for the 
court. The ruling rejected arguments that allowing officers to 
benefit from improper searches and similar activity would encourage 
"policing for profit" because law enforcement can sell or reuse the 
seized property. Such concerns, along with fears that the process 
doesn't adequately protect constitutional rights, have prompted an 
odd-bedfellows coalition of conservatives, civil rights groups, 
libertarians and others to press for reforms to asset forfeiture, 
though with little success thus far in the Legislature.

The case decided Friday involved attempts to seize a 2004 Lincoln 
Navigator after its owner, Miguel Herrera, a convicted felon, was 
arrested in 2010 after Department of Public Safety troopers found a 
gun in his vehicle during a search performed without a warrant.

A later search discovered baggies of cocaine in a hidden compartment.

A state district judge and later the 13th Court of Appeals determined 
that the officers didn't have probable cause to detain Herrera or to 
search his vehicle without a warrant. Therefore, the two courts 
ruled, the evidence of illegal activity couldn't be used to justify 
seizing the Navigator.

"Law enforcement cannot seize property if their actions leading up 
the seizure are illegal," District Judge Angelica Hernandez ruled in 2013.

The appeals court agreed a year later.

Friday's ruling by the Texas Supreme Court, however, said the state's 
asset-forfeiture law requires only that law officers prove to the 
courts that they reasonably believed that the property to be seized 
was connected to criminal activity.

In addition, applying the exclusionary rule to Herrera's case would 
deprive the courts of information needed to fulfill their essential 
duties of fact-finding and truth-seeking, Brown wrote.

"Here, the vehicle and the evidence found within it are indisputably 
relevant," he wrote.

"Applying the rule to (other civil-asset forfeiture cases), 
therefore, would likely have the undesirable effect of politely 
handing such vehicles - or computers, money, weapons or whatever else 
- - back to those who might put them to criminal use," Brown added.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom