Civil asset forfeiture: Un-natural law

Wayne R. Beckermann

Recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the revival of civil asset forfeiture practices. Such a phrase is ambiguous enough to disinterest average citizens, yet anyone whose assets have been sized through this method may attest to its truly malevolent and un-natural ramifications.

Effectively, civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to confiscate possessions from anyone suspected of illegal activity without filing any criminal charges; cases are between law enforcement and alleged criminally-connected assets, not owners. Notorious case names include Texas v. .39 Acres and Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado. During such cases, §59.02 (c) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure requires forfeiters to prove their innocence instead of requiring law enforcement to prove guilt.

One stark example of abuse was endured by Austin resident Javier Gonzalez in 2005. The Texas Observer reported Gonzalez was traveling from Austin to Brownsville with approximately $10,000 budgeted for his aunt’s funeral; however, despite no contraband, after Jim Wells County sheriff deputies stopped him for missing a front license plate, he was arrested and coerced into forfeiting the funds. Javier was told forfeiture represented the only way to prevent felony money laundering charges. Similarly, under Sessions’ direction, any UT student could experience disenfranchisement and have their possessions removed under the pretense of mere suspicion.

Civil asset forfeiture exists as an un-natural legal practice. The term “un-natural” reflects Cicero’s timeless observation that, “…true law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain…” Civil asset forfeiture, conversely, represents wrong reason in disagreement with nature. Imagine no property laws, or any laws whatsoever, existed: Would theft suddenly become acceptable? One does not need statutes to grasp the concept that taking from another without cause is not tolerable.

Unfortunately, even the Texas Supreme Court has ostensibly sanctioned civil asset forfeiture by holding in Texas v. Richards that the Texas Constitution does not protect owners from having assets forfeited, and in El-Ali v. Texas the Court refused to review its previous ruling. Courts, attorneys general and other entities may attempt to defend civil asset forfeiture, yet they stand in perpetual contempt of natural law enshrined within the Bill of Rights. The Fourth Amendment states, “… the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…,” which represents a restatement of natural law existing before ratification.

Sessions has promised reforms to curb previous abuses, yet law enforcement will still have perverse incentives to seize assets, which they regularly retain for local funding. Nonetheless, a ray of hope has emerged through Rep. Beto O'Rourke and Rep. Randy Weber’s bipartisan sponsorship of legislation guaranteeing legal representation for those whose assets have been seized, and redirecting seized assets into the U.S. Treasury’s general fund. One hopes bipartisan legislative opposition and an engaged citizenry will quickly stymie civil asset forfeitures, because un-natural laws cannot be gradually reformed: They must be actively abolished.

Wayne R. Beckermann is a member of the Texas Law Class of 2020 from Brenham, Texas.