The Weird World of Civil Forfeiture

Categories: Cover Story

In a Harris County District Clerk's Office, there sits a case known as The State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado. The case was disposed of in 2011, with the Chevy in question being found guilty.

You may wonder how an inanimate object can be sued. It's all a part of a process known as civil forfeiture, a peculiar remedy that allows state and federal authorities to seize property they believe were used in the commission of -- or are the fruits of -- a crime. The property can be anything (there's a Harris County forfeiture lawsuit against some jewelry, for example) but mostly involves cash and vehicles.

These actions play out in civil court, independent of any criminal charges. In fact, a person doesn't have to even be charged with a crime for the authorities to go after his loot. If the state wins, the proceeds are shared among local law enforcement agencies. And it's this practice, critics say, that gives the government a perverse incentive; a sort of license to shake down people who don't have the resources or inclination to fight back.

Prosecutors and police maintain that civil forfeiture is an effective crime-fighting tool. But some high-profile instances of abuse of the law have helped swell the ranks of those calling for the law to be modified or completely dismantled.

Leading the rallying cry against Texas's civil forfeiture law is the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, whose lawyers have taken on the case of a man embroiled in a civil forfeiture dispute. His name is Zaher El-Ali, and he's the man who claims to be the owner of the aforementioned Chevy Silverado. Using El-Ali as a sort of test case, the Institute challenged the very constitutionality of the civil forfeiture law. After striking out in district court, they pleaded their case before a panel of judges on the 14th Court of Appeals. The case is pending.

It turns out, for reasons explained in this week's story, "Texan Challenges Civil Forfeiture Law," that the Institute of Justice may have picked the wrong case to champion. But the Institute has certainly succeeded in spreading awareness of an unusual law that challenges traditional notions of jurisprudence.

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