Criminals gain from delayed asset forfeiture cases in Williamson County

GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) -- A Williamson County district court judge Wednesday dismissed asset forfeiture proceedings and ordered seized funds be paid back to the criminal defendant in a case dating back to February 2016.

Judge Donna King found due diligence was not exercised in the case by the Williamson Co. District Attorney's Office under the previous administration and ordered the return of $1,545 to criminal defendant Justin Cord Dabney. King says the time it took for the office to file for an asset forfeiture exceeded the law required, and therefore, she had to dismiss the case.

Although it was a 2016 case under former District Attorney Jana Duty, current District Attorney Shawn Dick's new administration served the defendant with notice the county intended to keep that seized money only days after officially taking office, in January of this year. His office's effort to retain that money was unsuccessful.

"In this particular case, we have an individual that's already agreed to plead guilty and agreed to go to prison for dealing drugs. This $1,500 was the proceeds of criminal enterprise, or $1,500 of drug dealing money that is basically going to be returned to him," explained Dick.

He says usually when someone is arrested for a criminal offense, money and/or property can be seized by law enforcement, but within 30 days of that time, prosecutors must file for an asset forfeiture.

Dabney's attorney told KXAN that was the mistake of the previous administration.

"Dismissed for want of prosecution means nobody's prosecuting it. It's going on the dismissal docket. We're going to dismiss it," said Jennifer Earls, Attorney for Justin Dabney. "[Dabney] was served I think it was three days after Shawn Dick took office. So clearly, they were on top of it. But, he had the case pending since 2016 and the previous administration did nothing."

Shortly after taking office in Williamson County, Dick says he learned there were problems with asset forfeiture cases in the county.

"What we realized was it was a much bigger problem than just that one case. We're talking about dozens of cases. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars that are going to end up being returned to criminals because of the negligence or the conscious indifference of the previous administration, specifically the lawyer responsible for handling those which was Brent Webster," said Dick.

A former employee of Webster's testified at the hearing, "Brent had made a statement that he was not going to bring in money for Shawn Dick," implying Webster's failure to pursue asset forfeiture cases may have been intentional.

Dick responded to that testimony, saying, "Certainly it's a shame. Anytime you're in a position of public trust, personal issues, outside issues, really shouldn't play in to how you respond to a case -- how you respond to your job."

He continued, "We needed to give [Webster] an opportunity to explain what work did they do on these cases because it was really difficult for us to tell what work had been done in this office at all."

Webster was called to testify at the hearing. He said, "Bond forfeitures, asset forfeitures took a backseat because we were short-staffed, to keeping the office together." Webster repeatedly testified that he could not recall the Dabney case because he did not have those case records.

According to counsel, in 2016, Williamson County had 67 asset forfeitures. However, only four cases were resolved that year. Three of those four cases were disposed of in December.

Representatives with the Williamson Co. District Attorney's Office said, in general, about 80 percent of the assets seized after their process through the courts typically goes to the arresting law enforcement agency and 20 percent goes to the District Attorney's Office. However, there are restrictions on how the money can be used.

Police say they often use it for help with training and equipment, like body cameras.

In July of last year, the State Bar of Texas publicly sanctioned then DA Jana Duty for professional misconduct for intentionally withholding evidence from defense attorneys and violating a gag order. Duty lost her bid for re-election to attorney Shawn Dick.

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