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State v. $71

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

December 31, 2019

The State of Texas, Appellant
v.
$71, 404.00 U.S. Currency, Appellee

          FROM THE 368TH DISTRICT COURT OF WILLIAMSON COUNTY NO. 18-1254-C395, THE HONORABLE RICK J. KENNON, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Triana and Smith.

          OPINION

          Gisela D. Triana, Justice.

         The State of Texas appeals from the district court's order granting a motion for new trial in a civil-asset-forfeiture case. In its sole issue on appeal, the State asserts that the district court erred in granting the motion for new trial because, in the State's view, the district court no longer had jurisdiction over the property that had been forfeited. We will affirm the district court's order.

         BACKGROUND

         On September 26, 2018, during a traffic stop on a vehicle that belonged to Vicente Alonso-Carbajal, the State seized $71, 404.00, believing it to be contraband that was subject to forfeiture under Chapter 59 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 59.01-.14. The State subsequently charged Alonso-Carbajal with the offense of money laundering.

         Alonso-Carbajal retained counsel to represent him in the criminal case. Although Alonso-Carbajal had not hired this counsel to represent him in the civil-forfeiture proceedings, this counsel filed an answer and general denial in response to the State's notice of seizure and intended forfeiture, as was this counsel's usual practice in cases involving the seizure of his client's property.

         On February 13, 2019, the criminal case was scheduled for a plea hearing. The parties anticipated that at this hearing, Alonso-Carbajal would plead guilty to the money-laundering charges. Before the hearing began, Bridget Chapman, an attorney for the District Attorney's Office, presented to counsel a "Stipulated Forfeiture and Agreed Final Judgment," which ordered the forfeiture of the $71, 404.00. Counsel signed the judgment, as did Chapman and the district court. Alonso-Carbajal was not present in the courtroom when counsel signed the judgment, and it is undisputed that counsel never discussed the judgment with his client and that Alonso-Carbajal had no knowledge that counsel had agreed to the forfeiture.

         When the plea hearing began, the district court admonished Alonso-Carbajal of the possible immigration consequences of his guilty plea. At that point, Alonso-Carbajal announced that he no longer wanted to plead guilty and instead wanted to discuss his case with an immigration attorney. The criminal case was reset for March 26, 2019.

         On February 26, 2019, pursuant to the terms of the Agreed Final Judgment, Ronnie Simek, the Financial Administrator for the District Attorney's Office, instructed the Williamson County Treasurer to withdraw the forfeited funds from the District Attorney's interest-bearing "TexPool Account" and deposit the funds into the District Attorney's "Chapter 59 Account" for disbursement to local law-enforcement agencies, in accordance with the requirements of Chapter 59. See id. art. 59.06. On February 27, Simek disbursed the funds to the Williamson County District Clerk, the Williamson County Constable Precinct 3, the Williamson County Sheriff, and the Williamson County District Attorney, in accordance with local agreements relating to the disbursement of forfeited funds.[1] See id.

         Meanwhile, Alonso-Carbajal had hired new counsel to represent him. This counsel informed Alonso-Carbajal that his $71, 404.00 had been forfeited pursuant to the agreed judgment. On March 8, 2019, within 30 days after the judgment had been signed, Alonso-Carbajal filed a motion for new trial, asking the district court to vacate the judgment because Alonso-Carbajal had not authorized his former counsel to sign it. The State filed a response in opposition, arguing that because the State had disbursed the forfeited funds, the district court had lost jurisdiction to grant a new trial. Following a hearing, the district court concluded that because the motion for new trial had been filed within 30 days from the entry of the judgment, the court "continue[d] to have jurisdiction to deal with this property." The court then granted the motion for new trial and set aside the judgment, ordering that the funds be returned to the District Attorney's "TexPool Account." This appeal by the State followed.

         ANALYSIS

         In its sole issue on appeal, the State asserts that the district court erred in granting a new trial because the district court had lost jurisdiction over the forfeited funds after they were disbursed by the State. "Subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law that we review de novo." Harris County v. Annab, 547 S.W.3d 609, 612 (Tex. 2018) (citing Texas Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 225-26 (Tex. 2004)).

         Forfeiture proceedings in Texas, although governed by the Code of Criminal Procedure, "are distinctly civil in nature." State v. One (1) 2004 Lincoln Navigator, 494 S.W.3d 690, 693 (Tex. 2016); see State v. Rumfolo, 545 S.W.2d 752, 754 (Tex. 1976); see also Tex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 59.05(a) ("All parties must comply with the rules of pleading as required in civil suits."), (b) ("All cases under this chapter shall proceed to trial in the same manner as in other civil cases."). Accordingly, the Rules of Civil Procedure apply to forfeiture proceedings. Three Thousand Six Hundred Thirty-Nine Dollars in U.S. Currency v. State, 133 S.W.3d 698, 700 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi-Edinburg 2003, no pet.); F&H Invs., Inc. ...


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