Law enforcement groups call civil asset forfeiture a vital tool in the war on drugs. Critics on the left and the right say it’s a practice prone to abuse, and it needs to be curtailed. The process allows law enforcement agents to take property and cash they suspect is related to criminal activity.
Two states have banned civil asset forfeiture altogether and nearly a dozen have limited its use. This session, there’s a bipartisan effort to add Texas to that list, stirring a debate that raises questions about the balance of property rights and fighting crime.
Crystal Greeson learned about civil asset forfeiture when it turned her life upside down.
'Where's our truck?'
January 7 started like an ordinary day for Greeson and her two young kids. Her family was staying at her father-in-law’s house in Forest Hills, just outside Fort Worth. In the early afternoon, she was helping her 8-year-old son get caught up on schoolwork.
Then, her phone rang.
“My husband called me and says he’s in jail,” she recalled.
He’d stolen some batteries and got caught. Cops found 14 grams of crystal meth in the family’s white Ford F-150. Greeson’s mind started to race. She was seven months pregnant, and this was the family’s only working vehicle.
“Where’s our truck?” she asked him. “He says 'I don’t know,' so I called the detectives.”
The Forest Hills police told Greeson she wouldn’t be getting the 12-year-old truck back. It was seized, and subject to forfeiture.
After a week, she was able to get her daughter’s car seat out of the truck. But everything else – two laptops, a tablet, some of the kids’ Christmas presents — was staying in the truck. Now, Greeson is getting money together to buy the truck back from the police.
“It makes me feel like I did something wrong, that I’m having to pay for it, that I’m having to spend this money to get it back,” she says.
Ten years in prison plus a Ford F-150
Greeson says she’s mad at her husband for running around with drugs. She blames herself, too for not knowing or, somehow, stopping him. He’d been in and out of jail, so she says she wasn’t totally surprised he’d bought drugs, but she didn’t think he was involved with that anymore. Still, she says, this forfeiture system feels unfair, like her whole family is being punished for the father’s crimes.
“Crystal did not marry a perfect guy,” said Steve Jumes, a lawyer who's helping Greeson negotiate the truck buyback with the Tarrant County District Attorney's office. “That imperfect guy is doing over a decade in the clink. And so do we need a Ford F-150, too?”
Jumes says Greeson’s case is an example of how civil asset forfeiture is too broadly applied.
Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson declined an interview, but her spokeswoman said in a statement that Greeson’s husband, David Brown, owned the truck, used it in a manner subject to forfeiture, pled guilty to drug possession and had a history of drug dealing.
Jumes says that’s all true, and that’s exactly why the laws should be reformed. He worked asset forfeiture cases as a federal prosecutor, and now fights them in private practice. He thinks forfeiture is a good tool; that there’s “a certain kind of poetry" in using ill-gotten gains from criminal enterprises to fight crime.
But he says it’s too costly and complicated to fight forfeiture, and case law stacks the deck steeply against property owners. Most of the time, he says, the best policy is just to buy back the property. Because it’s civil court, the cases drag on, and unlike criminal court, there’s no right to an attorney for those who can’t afford one.
In Texas, he says that includes too many poor people who are caught up in a system designed to target big-time criminals.
“Everyone agrees El Chapo’s catamaran should be taken,” Jumes said. “ I think most of us are shocked they’re looking at Crystal’s truck.”
Lawmakers and law enforcement are split
Life without that truck was hard on Greeson. With her due date approaching, getting to doctor’s appointments was tough. A few weeks before her due date, her doctor ordered bed rest, but instead she was walking a mile each way to get groceries. Her feet got too swollen to fit into regular shoes.
“I felt like I had to push through to take care of these kids because if not, they would’ve starved,” she said.
In March, on the day she gave birth, her blood pressure was dangerously high – 211 over 102, she says.
“Immediately they took me into delivery and said we’re taking this baby before you stroke out,” she said. “I had no idea it was that high, or I had no idea that I could die from it.”
Greeson feels lucky her son was born healthy. Baby Bentley and Greeson spent nearly a week in the hospital while doctors worked to stabilize her blood pressure.
The same day they were released, lawmakers in Austin were hearing testimony on nearly a dozen bills to rein in asset forfeiture.
Steve Jumes drove down to in favor of a bill, introduced by Burton and Thompson, to limit asset forfeiture to vehicles worth more than $10,000. Under that law, the truck Greeson relied on — the one that was seized when her husband got arrested — would have been exempt from the forfeiture process.
Ann Wright from the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office told lawmakers doing that would be a gift to criminals.
“They know what the rules are, and they know how to play them,” she said. “So instead of using a $12,000 car to go do their criminal offenses, they’ll just ratchet it down and use a junker that they find some place.”
The reform legislation takes a number of approaches to limit asset forfeiture and add transparency to the process. District attorneys, sheriffs and police associations oppose every one of the reform bills.
“One of the most effective tools that we have fighting traffickers of narcotics of people is civil asset forfeiture,” says Jackson County Sheriff AJ Louderback, legislative director for the Sheriff’s Association of Texas.
That same bill, which would have spared Crystal Greeson’s truck, would also require a criminal conviction for law enforcement to keep seized property. Ten states now require that.
Louderback says that as a border state, Texas shouldn’t.
“We have trouble trying to stop the illegal flow of narcotics and cash and assets from the sale of these narcotics,” he said. “And that would be completely detrimental to public safety from our standpoint.”
Getting her life back in order
Though reformers started the session optimistic that at least some of the reform efforts would pass, it's unclear any of them will survive the legislative session.
Crystal Greeson is less concerned by forfeiture’s crime-fighting potential than she’s focused on restoring the damage it’s done to her life.
It’s left her family scattered. Five months since her husband’s arrest, Greeson’s kids are staying with family members. She’s staying with friends south of Fort Worth and waiting on her tax return. With that money, she’ll buy back the family truck.
“Once I get all that under control, I’ll be able to get a job, and get my life back in order,” she said. “Get my kids back together and not be on Medicaid, not be on food stamps, and take care of my family on my own again.”
She reached a deal with Tarrant County District Attorney’s office this month. The cost of buying back the old F-150 so she can put her life back together is $1,200.