The seventeen-year marriage of Golda Yvonne Basey and Jeffery Basey appeared to be a peaceful one. At least until last summer, when Jeffery’s life seems to have come unraveled.  

Since August, the 68-year-old Vietnam vet, a resident of the sprawling Cypress suburb northwest of Houston, has been accused of a bevy of charges, including deadly conduct, three violations of a protective order, and, most seriously, three counts of indecency with a child.

Then, on December 23, Jeffery, a once-respected retired army first sergeant, had another problem added to his pile of woes: a charge of solicitation of capital murder. The Harris County District Attorney’s office alleges that Jeffery paid an undercover investigator working for their office a $5,000 down payment to kill his wife to prevent her from testifying against him in the child indecency case. (Another $45,000 was to come later.)

And now, since it was allegedly used in the commission of a serious crime, the Harris County DA’s office has filed suit to seize that $5K as contraband. 

After reading hundreds of such suits, this is one of the stranger examples of asset forfeiture I’ve seen. Our own Nate Blakeslee covered a really odd case last year, and defined the concept of civil forfeiture as well as anybody:    

Police departments in Texas, as in most places, can keep the proceeds from the sale of items confiscated in the course of their investigations. Through civil forfeiture, they can take assets—money, cars, houses—even when no criminal case is filed. It’s very difficult to get your property back once it has been seized; the state must show only by a “preponderance of evidence”—a lower standard than “reasonable doubt”—that the property was used in the commission of a crime.

Generally when the state moves to seize your assets, some people can prove that they are “innocent owners.” Say you own a car lot and somebody comes in, makes a down payment on a truck, drives off the lot, robs a liquor store and gets caught, owing you thousands of dollars for the balance on the truck. If the state moves to seize that vehicle, leaving you holding the bag for the remaining balance on the car, you can employ the “innocent owner” defense to show that you had no knowledge of the crime and could not have reasonably foreseen that the buyer was going to stick up a Spec’s in your truck. (Of course, this is an affirmative defense, meaning you have to go to the trouble of proving all this in court.)

But in this case, the Harris County DA’s office is attempting to seize $5,000—presumably from the wedded couple’s community estate—that Yvonne was not only the innocent owner of (well, half of it, anyway), but also the intended victim of the money’s misuse.

“First, it’s kind of stupid that they would try to seize the money, but that’s beside the point,” says Houston attorney Jen Gaut, an expert in asset forfeiture cases. “She would have an innocent owner defense to that. She could say ‘Hey, obviously I did not give him permission to use our $5,000 to try to have me killed.’ This case is ridiculous, but I am not surprised it’s been filed.” (Nor are John Denholm or JoAnn Musick, Jeffery’s attorneys. “Prosecutorial overreach,” they call it, but routine in Harris County courts, they say.)

“That money is forfeitable as ‘criminal proceeds,’ but the only decent thing to do would be to give the wife her one-half community interest in it,” Houston criminal defense attorney Dick DeGuerin wrote to me in an email. “She should file an intervention in the forfeiture proceedings.”

Indeed, that is what fighting these suits demands. Yvonne is not named as a party in the suit. As is always the case, the State of Texas is the plaintiff, the asset is the defendant, and the owner of the asset is the “respondent.”  

Since Jeffery was listed as the respondent, for Yvonne to get back some or all of the money that her estranged husband allegedly tried to use to have her whacked, she will have to hire an attorney and intervene as a third-party respondent. (Jeffery’s attorneys have filed a motion to assess his competency based on the suddenness of this outbreak of out-of-character behavior, his apparent inability to grasp court admonishments and instructions, and to determine if he is suffering from PTSD.) 

“You wouldn’t think that people [like Yvonne] wouldn’t have to do this much work but they do,” Gaut says. “An innocent owner carries a burden.”

I asked Gaut if Jeffery’s possible mental incompetence could have any bearing on the state’s suit. “No,” she said flatly. “It should, but I am just telling you, no. They will say that the money was used in the commission of a crime and is thus contraband. Since the money is the defendant, and [Jeffery] is the respondent, his mental state is irrelevant; the money was used in the commission of a crime and therefore the money is contraband.”

Gaut says that the original intent of the law was to strip ill-gotten gains from drug dealers in order to prevent them from hiring the sharpest lawyers, and then beating the system time and time again. “But especially here in Harris County, they’ve taken it really, really far beyond that,” she says, citing examples of the Harris County DA’s office suing for amounts in the low thousands or even hundreds. Hardly mad kingpin stacks. 

She says the DA’s office can wait out and outspend most of these respondents, as they have a team of prosecutors dedicated to winning these cases day-in and day-out, while the owners of these assets must hire attorneys and take time out of their lives to fight for their money or cars. Gaut says that a great many of the respondents just walk away from the money, especially if the amount is relatively small. (Denholm says one of the ironies of the system is that while the state often seizes expensive cars, by the time they came to auction, they’ve been baking in the Texas sun for months or even years, and need thousands of dollars in repairs just to make it off the lot. “The belts fall apart and the gas turns to varnish,” he says. “They don’t make as much money as you might think off those vehicles.”)

In this case Gaut believes that the commonsense thing to do would be for the State to just hand the money back to Yvonne. “They should say ‘Hey, this is too bad that this was taken but we are going to return this money to you because it’s joint money and obviously you didn’t know.’ And if I were her lawyer I would just ask [Yvonne] to call the DA’s office and ask them to return the money to her, since it’s community property. Just see what they say. Maybe it can be resolved that way. I wouldn’t count on it, but it’s always worth a try. The worst they can do is say no.” 

And if they do decline, and even if Yvonne does attempt to intervene in court and loses, there is another way she could get some of it back.

“Maybe she could get some of it back through the crime victims’ fund,” a rueful Gaut laughs. 

Kaylynn Williford, chief of the Harris County DA’s asset forfeiture division, would not comment on the specifics of this pending case, other than to say that it might well be possible for Yvonne to successfully employ an innocent owner defense.