A man named Luis Cantu and the argument for asset forfeiture

Photo by Martin do Nascimento

Early in my career I prosecuted felony drug crimes. When I assumed that case load, I was told by more experienced prosecutors and police officers that drug dealers would fight harder to keep the tools of their trade than they would to stay out of jail. That was confirmed by my experience.

Time and again I saw people charged with felony drug offenses fight to keep the cars in which they were transporting drugs while hardly objecting to the criminal charges against them. It takes a lot of time and money to outfit an inconspicuous car with hidden compartments under the seats or behind the engine compartment. Sometimes the drug dealer had simply invested a lot of money in the vehicle; money they didn’t want to lose under any circumstances.

Consider the story of Luis Cantu.

On October 16, 2010, Cantu was arrested in Ellis County and charged with possession of more than 2,900 pounds of marijuana, a first-degree felony. He was transporting the drugs in his semi-trailer truck, so after arresting Cantu, Department of Public Safety troopers seized the rig. My office filed a civil lawsuit to deprive the drug traffickers of that tool of their trade. The forfeiture case was tried in July 2011. Free on bond while his criminal case was pending, Cantu was present and represented by two attorneys. After Cantu was afforded the due process of a trial at which the state proved that the truck was used in drug trafficking, the vehicle was forfeited to the state. Not surprisingly, in July 2012, Cantu disappeared and forfeited his bond at the final pre-trial hearing on his criminal case.

As long as Cantu is on the lam, his criminal case cannot be prosecuted. If his case cannot be prosecuted, then he cannot be found guilty. Still, despite Cantu jumping bail, Texas law allowed my office to pursue the civil lawsuit seeking forfeiture of the truck that was used to haul more than a ton of illegal drugs into our community. Now, some at our state Capitol want to eliminate that law.

The Holy Grail for critics of the civil asset forfeiture system is a requirement for a criminal conviction before forfeiture. Had that proposal been the law in 2010, the outcome described above would have been impossible because Cantu responded to the civil suit before he absconded on the criminal charge. Instead, Ellis County citizens would be required to indefinitely pay the storage and impound fees for a drug dealer’s truck until Cantu, the indicted drug trafficker, could be found and tried. I don’t know about you, but nothing about that sounds very “smart on crime” to me.

Unlike the Cantu case, most asset forfeiture cases pursued by my office have related criminal cases that result in convictions. Regardless of the circumstances, my office closely screens all asset seizures submitted by law enforcement. Texas law requires that we do this quickly — even though the criminal proceeding may drag on for more than a year, as in the Cantu case — so that any innocent owner of a property who had no knowledge of a criminal activity can have their property quickly returned.

Furthermore, to avoid the ethical no-no of using a criminal prosecution as leverage in a civil suit, civil asset forfeitures and related criminal cases are always independently evaluated and prosecuted by different attorneys in my office. Surprisingly, some reform proposals at the Legislature seem to invite potentially unethical behavior by allowing property forfeitures to be a part of plea agreements in criminal cases.

The current system of civil asset forfeiture in Texas is an effective and efficient tool for law enforcement and a benefit to the communities we serve. I encourage anyone curious about the state’s forfeiture laws to speak with their local law enforcement officers and prosecutors to find out for themselves how the process really works.

And if you see Luis Cantu, please tell him that he is still wanted in Ellis County.

Patrick Wilson

Ellis County & District Attorney