613 – Asset Seizure, Forfeiture, and Disposition of Contraband Property
This policy establishes guidelines and procedures for the seizure, documentation, handling, storage, forfeiture, and final disposition of contraband, including motor vehicles and cash, as defined in and regulated by the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP) and other related laws, rules, and regulations.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) shall take an aggressive and proactive approach in seizing contraband in cases where legally justified, feasible, and appropriate to deter criminal activity. Upon being forfeited to the HCSO by court order, the contraband, other than firearms / weapons, or resulting proceeds will be utilized for law enforcement operations.
Contraband: Property of any nature that is listed in CCP, Chapter 59, “Forfeiture of Contraband,” Article 59.01, number 2.
Criminal Instrument: Any object that is specifically designed, made, or adapted for use in the commission of an offense where the possession, manufacture, or sale of the object is not otherwise an offense. This includes vehicles with hidden compartments used or intended to be used in criminal activity, usually to transport drugs, money, and / or people.
Forfeiture: The court-ordered termination of any previous ownership interest and right in contraband and court-ordered transfer of such ownership to the HCSO, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office (HCDAO), the State of Texas, or another law enforcement agency as defined in CCP, Chapter 59.
Seizure: The restraint of property by a peace officer whether the officer restrains the property by physical force or by a display of the officer’s authority; includes the collection of property or the act of taking possession of property.
- The seizure may be pursuant to a search warrant (CCP Article 59.03) or
- Without a warrant pursuant to CCP Article 59.03 (b) if:
- The owner, operator, or agent in charge of the property knowingly consents to the seizure or
- The seizure is incident to a search to which the owner, operator, or agent in charge of the property knowingly consented.
- The seizure was incident to a lawful arrest, lawful search, or lawful search incident.
Prior to seizure of contraband for forfeiture under this policy, it must meet one of the contraband definitions in CCP Article 59.01 or 18.18. Questions regarding specific cases should be referred to a supervisor, the HCSO Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU), or the HCDAO Asset Forfeiture Division (AFD) from the scene.
All contraband seizures, other than criminal instruments and those involving dog fighting offenses must be financially feasible for the HCSO and the HCDAO AFD to proceed. The HCDAO AFD has indicated that usually if money is seized, the amount should be at least $1,000. If an item such as a vehicle is seized for forfeiture, the vehicle must retain a wholesale value of at least $4,000.
Wrecked or damaged vehicles may be considered for seizure but must retain a minimum wholesale value of at least $5,000. If a vehicle is believed to meet the above criteria, proceed with the seizure pending further consultation with the HCSO AFU.
Contraband items, including cash, that individually are worth less than $1,000 may not be combined for seizure with a qualifying larger value seizure worth $1,000 or greater in wholesale or cash value. Nor may dollar amounts be taken from multiple individuals to combine for a total amount of $1000 for seizure.
Any motor vehicle meeting the definition of contraband and the monetary value as listed above regardless of year, model, mileage, or condition should be seized.
Vehicles with hidden compartments used or intended for criminal activity are criminal instruments and shall be seized in every case, regardless of value.
Any vehicle driven by a person charged with a PC Chapter 49 offense (such as DWI) who has at least three (3) prior Chapter 49 (DWI-related) convictions should be seized regardless of value unless rejected by the HCDAO AFD.
Contraband associated with dog fighting offenses as defined in PC Section 42.10, including dogs, cages, other equipment, and vehicles, shall be seized in every case, regardless of value. Seizure of fighting dogs will require involvement by Animal Control for detention, safekeeping, and ongoing custody of the dogs after seizure.
Dog fighting contraband will usually be seized under CCP Article 18.18, and no civil seizure under CCP Chapter 59 will be filed unless under special circumstances and after prior consultation with the HCDAO AFD.
The final disposition of this contraband will be determined by the trial court hearing the associated criminal charges.
Weapons including firearms shall not be seized for Department Use under this policy.
Certain contraband items may have both evidentiary value and forfeiture potential. Such items should first be lawfully seized as evidence, and civil seizure and forfeiture proceedings should also be initiated within the time limits prescribed by CCP Chapter 59 and this policy.
In such cases, the evidence status will take precedence, and the trial court in the criminal case will determine the disposition of the contraband prior to any forfeiture proceedings in civil court.
If such a conflict arises, the final decision will be made by the HCDAO AFD.
Procedure – Seizing Deputy
If the HCSO deputy who seizes property has a question regarding whether forfeiture proceedings should be initiated, he or she shall ALWAYS call the HCSO AFU for guidance. The seizing deputy shall comply with the guidelines and procedures established in this policy. If deputies from the Criminal Investigations Bureau, Homeland Security Bureau, or the HCSO AFU respond to the scene, then they shall be responsible for determining seizure values and complying with the procedures established in this policy.
All contraband meeting the guidelines under this policy and CCP Chapter 59 or Article 18.18 shall be seized by the HCSO when legally justified, feasible, and appropriate.
If contraband is released from HCSO custody, subsequent forfeiture proceedings are unlikely. Therefore, if in doubt, retain HCSO possession of lawfully-seized property pending consultation with the AFU.
All contraband must have been seized within the Harris County boundary and must be in the lawful custody and control of the HCSO prior to initiating any forfeiture proceedings.
All contraband must be initially seized pursuant to a lawful arrest, during a search pursuant to a lawful arrest, by search warrant, consent search, or by consent of the owner, operator, or agent in charge of the contraband.
All seizures of contraband shall be conducted in accordance with the legal guidelines of the HCDAO AFD, which is responsible for reviewing and filing all civil actions required in forfeiture cases related to CCP Chapter 59 or Article 18.18. The final decision to file a forfeiture case lies with the HCDAO AFD.
When the HCSO assists other agencies in their seizure cases, or when another agency assists the HCSO (e.g., a K-9 vehicle search, narcotics investigation, etc.), an equitable share or distribution of the seizure will be sought via the HCDAO AFD in proportion to each agency’s involvement.
During the course of seizing contraband for forfeiture, the seizing deputy is responsible for:
- Initially determining that the criminal case under investigation and involved contraband meet the criteria set forth in this policy as it relates to CCP Chapter 59 or Article 18.18. Questions regarding specific cases should be referred to a supervisor, the HCSO AFU, or the HCDAO AFD from the scene;
- Resolving initial legal questions regarding the anticipated seizure from the scene by consulting with the HCDAO Intake Division or the HCDAO AFD. The HCDAO AFD may be contacted at their office, or on-call HCDAO personnel may be contacted after-hours through the HCDAO Intake Division; and
- Resolving initial questions regarding policy or procedure from the scene by consulting with the HCSO AFU during regular business hours (281-446-4399) or with his or her immediate supervisor. If further clarification is necessary after hours, the immediate supervisor may contact HCSO AFU on-call personnel through the HCSO Communications Division (Watch Command).
HCSO AFU personnel should be contacted when newsworthy, large, or unusual seizures occur, including, but not limited to, cash amounts of $10,000 or greater. The seizure value shall not be disclosed outside of the HCSO or HCDAO until the asset is secure in a financial institution.
For narcotics-related money seizures, a HCSO K-9 unit shall be called to the original seizure scene if possible to check the money for the scent of narcotics. If calling a K-9 unit to the scene is not feasible, the money shall be kept separate from any narcotics until the K-9 can be utilized.
All money shall be accurately counted by at least two (2) HCSO deputies. The accurate amount shall be documented in an incident report.
Seized money shall be secured in a HCSO currency envelope, currency plastic bag or whenever the currency is in excess, it can be placed in a large paper bag. The envelope shall be sealed with evidence tape, tagged as evidence, and stored in a secure, HCSO-approved location before the end of the shift on which the initial seizure occurred.
When currency is brought to the property room from a district, etc., it is opened and counted by property room personnel in the presence of the submitting deputy to ensure the amount is accurate to the amount listed. The currency should also be packaged in a currency envelope, currency plastic bag and/or whenever the amounts are too large, the currency can be placed inside a regular paper bag with the denominations affixed, printed on the outside.
All seized automobiles or watercraft considered for forfeiture proceedings should be towed by a county-contracted tow service and escorted by a deputy or investigator to the Auto Theft Unit compound located at 310 Fisher Road or another secured vehicle storage facility as designated by the HCSO AFU.
Large items, such as houses, buildings, aircraft, large boats, etc., will pose transportation, storage, safekeeping, and other issues pending forfeiture. The HCSO AFU and the HCDAO AFD shall be contacted before proceeding.
An incident report and required supplement reports shall be entered to document the offenses committed and facts surrounding the seizure.
The original report must include details of why the contraband was seized, where and who it was seized from, and how (arrest, search warrant, etc.). The reports should also include:
- A full and complete description of the contraband;
- A specific amount of money seized;
- Any statements from the suspects regarding the origin, use, or intended use of the contraband;
- Any other interested party known or likely to claim ownership interest in the contraband, including other law enforcement agencies participating in the investigation or seizure;
- The storage locations; and
- Any communications regarding the seizure, including consultations with a supervisor, the HCDAO Intake Division, the HCDAO AFD, and the HCSO AFU (including the notification e-mail as required below).
All contact information for all suspects and any other parties known to have, or likely to claim, an ownership interest in the contraband, to facilitate possible future return of the contraband, or notification of proceedings regarding the contraband should be documented.
The initial incident report and supplement reports must be completed in a timely manner to provide the HCSO AFU the opportunity to review the case prior to notification of the HCDAO AFD of the seizure.
The seizing deputy shall e-mail the HCSO Asset Forfeiture Unit ([email protected]) to inform the unit of the case number, the contraband seized, and any other pertinent information. The e-mail notification is essential and is required to begin the forfeiture process.
If a vehicle or other item seized has, or is suspected of having, hidden compartments, contains contraband, or has a tampered, altered, obliterated, or otherwise unidentifiable vehicle identification number (VIN) or other serial number, the HCSO AFU shall be notified by e-mail.
All personal property shall be removed from a vehicle seized for forfeiture; only the vehicle is the forfeited object. It is the responsibility of the deputy seeking seizure of the vehicle to ensure the vehicle has been cleared of all personal property and contraband. The personal property shall be returned to the owner or a responsible party at the time the vehicle is being seized. If no responsible party can be located to take custody of the personal property, the personal property (no firearms / weapons) may remain with the vehicle for 5 days from date of seizure. It will still be the responsibility of the deputy seeking the seizure to have the personal property removed from the seized vehicle within the 5 day period. Personal property shall not be submitted to the HCSO property room as evidence or for safe keeping.
After assisting another agency with its seizure, the deputy shall:
- Enter an incident report detailing the HCSO involvement in the other agency’s seizure, the other agency’s case number, and the contraband seized, and
- E-mail the HCSO AFU within 24 hours of the seizure to inform the unit of the HCSO case number, the other agency involved, and their case number.
- All subsequent communications and correspondence regarding the seizure shall be sent to the HCSO AFU.
- No information regarding specific dollar amounts seized should be made public or released to the news media due to safety and security concerns regarding storage and transport of the seized funds.
Procedure – Seizing Deputy’s Supervisor
- The seizing deputy’s immediate supervisor may be consulted from the scene to make a determination regarding the legal justification, feasibility, or appropriateness of any seizure and may decline for the seizure to proceed. If in doubt, the supervisor is encouraged to seek guidance from the HCSO AFU or the HCDAO AFD before reaching a final decision.
- If guidance is needed after hours, the supervisor shall contact the HCSO AFU through HCSO Watch Command prior to contacting the HCDAO AFD through HCSO Watch Command.
Procedure – Seizing Division (After Forfeiture)
After a seizure is awarded to the HCSO by the courts, the AFU will notify the commander of the division originally requesting the seizure by e-mail.
If the seizing division still wants the asset, it must arrange for inspection of vehicles by Harris County Fleet Operations for suitability for fleet use. Other assets may require inspection by other competent authority.
The seizing division must obtain written authorization from its bureau commander to place the asset into bureau use.
After inspection approval (if applicable) and bureau commander approval, the seizing division must submit a letter to Commissioners Court requesting acceptance of the asset and permission to use it for official business.
A copy of the letter shall be forwarded to the AFU. The AFU must receive it within thirty (30) days of the initial notification to the division commander. Within the same time restriction, the division may notify the AFU that they no longer want the asset.
If the AFU does not receive a copy of the request letter or some other appropriate written communication within thirty (30) days, the original seizing division or bureau may forfeit any claim to the asset. The AFU will then begin steps to place the asset with another division or begin disposition proceedings for destruction or auction of the asset. Any resulting proceeds from the auction will go to the Sheriff’s general seizure fund or other appropriate accounts (grants, etc.).
After the seizing division or bureau receives acceptance by Commissioners Court, it must contact Harris County Fleet Operations for accepted vehicles or the HCSO Business Office to have all other assets entered into the Integrated Fund Accounting System (IFAS) to receive equipment or inventory numbers.
The seizing division must provide a copy of the bureau commander acceptance and Commissioners Court acceptance to the AFU (for vehicles) or, if applicable, to the Property Room (for televisions, and other property besides vehicles) to take possession of the assets.
Procedure – Asset Forfeiture Unit
Upon receipt of the seizure e-mail, the HCSO AFU is responsible for: [CALEA Standard 84.1.8]
- Preparing and maintaining a case file for each HCSO seizure or equitable share request to include the offense report, all other pertinent forms, faxes, e-mails, photos, deposit slips, property receipts, property releases, and documentation related to that particular seizure;
- Forwarding a seizure notification form to the HCDAO AFD to notify them of the seizure within seven (7) days;
- Acting as liaison between the HCSO and the HCDAO AFD or any other entity or person and providing follow-up investigation as needed by the HCDAO AFD regarding the seizure;
- As soon as possible after notification of an initial seizure by the HCSO, the HCSO AFU shall obtain, process, and deposit all contraband money, securities, negotiable instruments, or stocks in the approved banking institution;
- The HCSO AFU shall ensure the HCSO property envelope remains sealed when it is removed from storage. The money shall be counted in the presence of the Property Room custodian.
- The AFU shall ensure the amount that will actually be deposited matches the amount seized and stored in the Property Room as documented in the incident report.
If there is an amount discrepancy, the HCSO AFU supervisor shall be notified immediately. The supervisor will determine:
- If the deposit process will continue, the procedure will be documented in a supplement report; or
- If the process will be halted, the HCSO Office of Inspector General (OIG) will be immediately notified.
- The HCSO AFU will safely transfer the currency to the banking institution approved by the HCSO and HCDAO AFD and obtain an official deposit receipt from the institution.
- The HCSO AFU will always ensure personnel safety and the safety of the property being taken to the banking institution by utilizing a marked HCSO unit for escort when necessary.
- The HCSO AFU will research and document any and all liens, their amounts, and the fair market values pertaining to seized motor vehicles or other contraband.
Determining the classification category of each seized vehicle after consultation with the Harris County Vehicle Maintenance Center (VMC), HCSO Fleet Operations, and the AFU commander. Seized vehicles will be classified into one of the two following categories*:
Regular Fleet Operation
Vehicles intended for daily operation by the HCSO shall be:
- Common makes and models (no exotic or unusual vehicles);
- Equipped with a crash data recorder or event data recorder capable of download by the HCSO Vehicular Crimes Division;
- Operable and in good repair;
- Five (5) years or newer year model at the time of initial seizure;
- 50,000 miles or fewer;
- Inspected by the Auto Theft Unit in a timely manner to ascertain the correct and proper vehicle identification number, VIN alterations, and changes;
- Inspected by the Narcotics Unit and K-9 Unit in a timely manner to search for hidden narcotics or compartments; and
- Inspected by the Harris County Vehicle Maintenance Center (VMC) to ascertain:
- If the vehicle is economically feasible for future regular and daily fleet operation and maintenance;
- If the vehicle is in good, sound working order for future regular and daily fleet operation, both mechanical and frame;
- If the vehicle is in need of repairs or other concerns; and
- The current estimated fair market value of the vehicle.
Vehicles intended for limited undercover usage or specific assignments by the HCSO shall be:
- Any make and model, including exotic and unusual vehicles;
- Operable and in reasonable repair;
- Any year model;
- Any mileage;
- Inspected by the Auto Theft Unit in a timely manner (see above);
- Inspected by the Narcotics Unit and K-9 Unit in a timely manner (see above);
- Inspected by Harris County VMC to ascertain:
- If the vehicle is economically feasible for future undercover pool operation and routine maintenance;
- If the vehicle is in reasonable working order for future undercover pool operation, both mechanical and frame;
- If the vehicle is in need of repairs or other concerns; and
- The current estimated fair market value of the vehicle.
Vehicles intended for auction:
- Can be any make and model as long as the wholesale value is at least $5,000;
- Can be any year model or mileage and in any condition;
- Must be inspected by the Auto Theft Unit in a timely manner (see above); and
- Must be inspected by the Narcotics Unit and K-9 Unit in a timely manner (see above).
- Rejection of any pending forfeiture, with supervisory approval or upon direction of the HCDAO AFD, at any point in the process if deemed to be contrary to HCSO policy or practice, state or federal laws, or otherwise unfeasible.
- AFU shall be responsible for disposing of all rejected seizures and/or court orders granting the property be returned to the rightful owner under this policy in accordance with applicable statutes and department policies.
- AFU shall be responsible for maintaining a database for rejected seizures and/or court orders granting the property be returned to the rightful owner.
- AFU shall be responsible for maintaining applicable documentation on rejected seizures and or court orders granting the property be returned to the rightful owner in accordance with the Harris County retention schedule.
- As soon as possible after the initial seizure, preparing and delivering the appropriate seizure documents to the HCDAO AFD to facilitate their initiation of the forfeiture process in court. This includes the affidavit required by CCP Chapter 59;
NOTE: The HCDAO AFD must file forfeiture documentation with the Harris County District Clerk’s Office within thirty (30) days of the initial seizure per CCP Chapter 59.
Scheduling and coordinating Auto Theft Unit, Narcotics Unit, and K-9 Unit inspections of every seized vehicle;
Ascertaining preliminary approval from the HCSO AFU commander of equitable share requests and HCSO usage or auction of contraband to be forfeited:
- After preliminary approval for HCSO usage, scheduling, and coordinating serviceability and suitability inspection by VMC of seized vehicles, or
- By a qualified authority of other contraband.
Ascertaining final approval from the Criminal Investigations Bureau commander of equitable share requests and approval for HCSO use or auction* of contraband to be forfeited by submitting a report via the HCSO AFU commander;
- This report will include a copy of the original incident or supplement report and, if applicable, photos of the contraband and documentation of the inspection, condition, serviceability, mileage, current estimated fair market value, any lien holder information, and lien amount.
- This report will also include a “use letter” regarding seized contraband by which the Criminal Investigations Bureau commander will notify the HCDAO AFD that the HCSO either does or does not seek to use such contraband for official purposes after forfeiture.
In HCSO seizures resulting from multi-agency investigations, the use letter will take the form of a “share letter” and will notify the HCDAO AFD of the equitable share percentage that each involved agency may have in the contraband or cash.
In other agency seizures that the HCSO assisted with, the share letter will notify the HCDAO AFD of the equitable share percentage sought by the HCSO in the other agency’s seizure.
After the bureau commander’s decision is indicated, the HCSO AFU will retain a copy of the use or share letter in the seizure case file, and the original will be forwarded by the HCSO AFU to the HCDAO AFD.
NOTE: *Disposition of contraband seized by grant-funded personnel may be governed by applicable grant guidelines. Any such guidelines should be consulted before disposition decisions are made.
The use or share letter must be delivered to the HCDAO AFD within sixty (60) days of the initial seizure per the “Local Agreement with Respect to the Forfeiture of Contraband” between the HCSO and the HCDAO;
Obtaining certified copies of any final forfeiture court orders from the HCDAO AFD;
Coordinating with the HCDAO AFD to have seized vehicles / property properly appraised for auction as conducted by the HCDAO AFD.
Obtaining a copy of documentation of Commissioners Court acceptance or rejection of forfeited contraband;
Assisting with the auction process, in conjunction with the HCDAO AFD, of forfeited contraband approved to be auctioned;
On the same date or earliest opportunity auction proceeds checks are received from the HCDAO AFD, submitting the proceeds and any associated paperwork to the HCSO Business Office for deposit into appropriate accounts;
Cooperating with the Harris County Auditor’s Office regarding audits to provide access to necessary documentation while providing reasonable safeguards of confidential criminal case information not required for the audit process;
After the seizure, forfeiture, and auction or other disposition is complete, maintaining and storing all closed seizure case files, including all records, court orders, Commissioners Court acceptance or rejection documentation, and auction records;
Maintaining and storing all seized motor vehicles awaiting forfeiture or that have been forfeited to the HCSO at a secured storage facility pending final disposition or assignment to a permanent user;
Awarded bureau, division vehicles shall coordinate with VMC and HCSO Fleet Operations to ensure that all motor vehicles, after forfeiture and approval by Commissioners Court for HCSO use, are tagged with an equipment number by the Harris County Purchasing Department, issued a gas card, properly registered, state-inspected, maintained, and in good working order.
Coordinating with the Property Room to facilitate release of forfeited contraband to the approved, assigned end user, division, or personnel. AFU shall provide the Property Room with applicable documentation for the release of the forfeited contraband.
Procedure – Asset Forfeiture Unit Commander
The HCSO AFU commander shall conduct periodic internal audits, both scheduled and random, of all records and logs within the HCSO AFU pertaining to seizures, forfeitures, and auctions to ensure compliance and maintenance of records. These audits shall bear the commander’s signature and be recorded by date.
Procedure – Authorized Use of Forfeited Contraband
Divisions or units seeking items they seized to be assigned to them after forfeiture should notify the HCSO Asset Forfeiture Unit by e-mail ([email protected]) within sixty (60) days of the original seizure date.
Final approval for assignment of forfeited contraband must come from the Criminal Investigations Bureau commander and the bureau commander of the division or unit seeking the item.
Questions regarding Asset Forfeiture Status may contact the Asset Forfeiture Unit.
Any bureau, division, unit or employee assigned a forfeited vehicle or other contraband will be responsible for keeping inventory of said item.
Procedure – HCSO Business Office
The HCSO Business Office will maintain a spreadsheet noting all seizures and forfeitures. The information on the spreadsheet will be updated monthly. The AFU shall provide the following data:
Seizures: Month of seizure, HCSO incident report number, amount of cash seized, and description of property seized. This information will be provided by the AFU.
Disbursements: Month of disbursement, agency’s cause number, defendant name, amount of cash awarded, property awarded, cause number of property awarded, and property to be used by HCSO or sent to auction.
Amount of funds deposited with Harris County Treasurer by HCSO Business Office, cause number of funds, and reconciliation of deposit recorded in IFAS Chapter 59 organization key.
The amounts awarded to HCSO and presented by HCDAO must reconcile to amounts deposited with the Harris County Treasurer and amounts recorded in IFAS.
Property awarded must be entered into IFAS for transfer to a HCSO division or for transfer to Harris County Purchasing Services for auction.
The spreadsheet maintained by the Business Office will be verified by the HCDAO for accuracy and audited by the Harris County Auditor’s Office during the annual audit. The spreadsheet is also used in preparing the annual State Chapter 59 Report submitted to the Attorney General’s Office.
No seized contraband may be utilized by the HCSO or any member thereof until such time as a lawful court order is received forfeiting said contraband to the HCSO and all other requirements of this policy have been met.
Items excluded from seizure under this policy and CCP Chapter 59 include:
- Abandoned property,
- Weapons including firearms,
- Property with undetermined ownership, and
- Recovered stolen property, including motor vehicles and parts with missing, altered, changed, or obliterated motor, serial, or permanent manufacturer’s identification numbers.
These items should be seized pursuant to CCP Chapter 47 through the Harris County Attorney’s Office under HCSO Department Policy #604 – Seizure and Disposition of Stolen Property and Motor Vehicles.
Any questions regarding whether property sought to be seized for forfeiture under this policy is proper or regarding exclusions in specific cases should be referred to a supervisor, the HCSO AFU, or the HCDAO AFD (713-274-5570) during regular business hours or through the HCDAO Intake Division (713-274-5894 or 713-274-5895) after-hours.
Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Chapter 59, “Forfeiture of Contraband”
Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 18.18, “Disposition of Gambling Paraphernalia, Prohibited Weapon, Criminal Instrument, and other Contraband”
Texas Penal Code Section 16.01, “Unlawful Use of Criminal Instrument or Mechanical Security Device”
This policy has been revised on the below listed dates:
April 9, 2013
May 1, 2013
June 11, 2018
December 14, 2020