Imagine you are driving to make a big purchase — maybe to buy a new car or make a down payment on a house — and you are stopped for a minor traffic infraction. You start to panic because you realize you have a large amount of cash in your vehicle. If the cash you are carrying was obtained through legal means and you are not on your way to or from a crime, should you be nervous? After all, it is not illegal to carry money that you legally obtained, right?
Even though it is technically not illegal to travel with large amounts of cash, it is definitely suspicious to many law enforcement officers. Carrying a large amount of cash can result in asset forfeiture and seizure, even if you are not arrested for an offense. Welcome to the world of asset forfeiture.
Forfeiture is a judicial construct where the government pursues the outright taking of private property on the basis that it is linked to crime. There are two bases most commonly used to seize and forfeit property: First, the Government may try to establish that targeted property is ill-gotten gains (proceeds) of crime. In the alternative, it could allege that property, like a vehicle, is used to aid (facilitate) a crime. Obviously, forfeiture is designed to take away the motivating factor for crime, which is greed. In fact, administrative, civil, and criminal forfeiture recoveries have resulted in the growth of the DOJ’s Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) which had a net balance of more than a billion dollars in 2017. By the way, the Treasury Department has its own asset forfeiture fund known as the Treasury Executive Office for Asset Forfeiture (TEOAF). It also has hundreds of millions of dollars.
In addition to federal forfeiture efforts, state government entities are also able to take assets if they were derived from illegal activity. In Texas, civil forfeiture is provided for in Article 59 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Interestingly, in Texas, property subject to forfeiture is called contraband.
Clearly, the idea of depriving criminals of their ill-gotten gains is an honorable one. However, it can become problematic because courts do not require direct proof of a known crime to forfeit property.
Going back to the traffic stop. If you find yourself in that situation, how will you prove that the money you have is legitimate? Will the police believe you and just give it back?
Law enforcement agencies routinely seize and forfeit property and funds without any definitive proof of a crime or connection to criminal activity. Under civil asset forfeiture laws, they are able to do this without ever charging the owner with a crime. As a result, this process is sometimes abused and the hard earned assets of innocent citizens are forfeited to the government because they are intimidated into giving up the assets.
First, forfeitures are not criminal actions but civil actions. These lawsuits are unique because they are actually brought against an object, such as a vehicle or currency, rather than an individual. This means the defendant is the actual object the government is seeking to forfeit, and not the person whom the object was taken from.
Because civil asset forfeiture has a lower standard of proof than a criminal action, it is much easier to forfeit money without definitively proving it was obtained from criminal activity. In fact, to get seized assets returned, the owner — not the government — is usually required to prove that the assets are not connected to criminal activity.
The government uses civil asset forfeiture as an important tool in the war on drugs to seize assets involved in the narcotics trade such as cash, weapons, vehicles and other property acquired from the proceeds of illegal drug sales or involved in facilitating illegal drug activity. Unfortunately, this process is subject to abuse and the victims are often law-abiding citizens.
People who have had their property seized for forfeiture have the right to make a claim and demand the return of their property and should do so as soon as possible or the property will be forfeited to the government by default. See 59.02-59.06 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and 18 U.S.C. 983.
Unfortunately, the ease by which the government is able to take assets from citizens under the civil asset forfeiture laws makes it a system that is readily subject to abuse by certain agencies or individuals. There are numerous reports around the country of law enforcement officials abusing their civil asset forfeiture powers and targeting innocent citizens, scaring them into giving up their cash.
An infamous example of this occurred in the small Texas town of Tenaha, located on the interstate from Houston to Louisiana. Law enforcement there were engaging in a scheme that targeted minorities, mostly African Americans, and intimidated them into giving up their assets. Police were pulling over travelers passing through the town and threatening to bring felony money laundering charges if they did not sign over their assets.
From 2006 to 2008, officials in Tenaha seized property such as vehicles, cash, phones and jewelry without ever bringing charges in almost 150 different cases. Innocent families and grandparents were among those targeted and forced into giving up their assets because they could not adequately explain how they came to be in possession of the assets.
Understand that once your assets have been seized, you typically have a small amount of time to file your claim after receiving a Notice of Seizure and Intended Forfeiture, so you must act fast or you will lose your assets automatically. Under 983 and Art. 59.02-59.06, citizens typically have around 30 days to claim their property. If they fail to do so, then the property goes to the government entity by default. Most assets are forfeited by default.
Here are some tips to follow when traveling with large amounts of cash. Many people are shocked to learn that carrying a large amount of cash can result in asset forfeiture. Since many law enforcement agencies are literally on the prowl for private property during traffic stops, there are a few suggestions for those traveling so they might avoid the loss of their assets.
Other important tips include the following:
If you have had cash seized at any United States airport or while traveling, call us immediately at 817-203-2220. One of the partners at our firm, attorney Steve Jumes, is one of the lead asset forfeiture attorneys in the state.
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