Sunday, October 25, 2015

Local law enforcement set to cash in on illegal game room proceeds through asset forfeiture

Game room bonanza to be tapped by law enforcement agencies 

To be sure, HPD and Harris County are not in the business of running gambling operations, not to mention illegal ones, but that does not mean that law enforcement cannot share in the profits from this particular kind of vice; - as a bounty for cracking down on it, as it were.

In a slew of civil forfeiture lawsuits filed last week, the County's District Attorney's Office seeks court approval to keep loads of cash and gold seized in raids on illegal gaming operations that the owners had stashed away in bank safe deposit boxes and other hiding places. Compared with the typical seizures of property in connection with criminal investigations, such as small-scale drug busts, the amounts are staggering. $313,023.03 in Cause No. 201563147 and $271,200.00 in Cause No. 201563133, plus 27 gold bars and 4 watches.

In personal injury cases, the amounts of damages, if quantified in the pleading at all, are not particularly meaningful because they are not liquidated. The dollar amount sought may be considered newsworthy in a high-profile case, but it is no more than the price tag that the plaintiff or the plaintiff's lawyers put on the injury, and the court or the jury will have to determine the amount, if any damages are awarded at all.

But in the case of forfeiture proceedings, the money is already in the hands of law-enforcement, and has been accounted for. The only issue is whether the authorities gets to keep it as "contraband" rather than having to return it to the people from which the assets were seized in the course of a criminal investigation culminating in a raid and/or arrest.

The forfeiture cases are filed by the District Attorney's Offices in the name of the State of Texas and therefore show the State as the Plaintiff.

Strangely, in these type of civil proceedings (albeit relating to criminal cases), the amount of money is used in lieu of the name of the defendant(s) in the case style. The individuals from whom the money or other assets were taken are identified in the body of the pleading, and in the sworn notice of seizure signed by an officer involved in the law enforcement operation. They may contest the seizure, but if they are guilty of the underlying crime, it may make little sense, assuming they even have the wherewithal to mount a legal challenge.

Forfeiture is governed by Chapter 59 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, but Harris County such cases are filed in civil district courts.

Because of its large size and caseload, Harris County has many district courts that divide the caseload among them by case type: criminal, family, juvenile, and nonfamily civil cases.