Pro Bono Week Spotlight: Dykema Cox Smith


“You can study government and politics in school, but the best way to really understand the process is to volunteer your time.”  - Rob McKenna, Former Washington Attorney General

DykemaCoxSmithIn May 2015, Dykema Gossett PLLC and Cox Smith Matthews Inc. joined forces to create Dykema Cox Smith; a more than 450-lawyer firm, with 15 offices, mainly concentrated in Michigan, Illinois, and Texas. Soon after the transition, Pro Bono Counsel for Dykema, Heidi Naasko, called me from Ann Arbor, seeking to get to know what Texas Appleseed is all about and how the newly combined firm could get involved.

Around that time, Texas Appleseed received a grant from the Texas Bar Foundation to create videos that would help individuals navigate the civil asset forfeiture process in Texas, pro se. Dykema, excited to get involved, jumped at the chance to volunteer their time and brilliant minds to the task.

Civil asset forfeiture is a tool used by law enforcement to seize property that it asserts has been involved in certain criminal activity. While advocates of the practice state that it is an important tool for fighting crime, by reducing the profitability of, and removing assets required for, certain criminal activity, there is evidence that the practice has and continues to be routinely abused. Indeed, the Institute for Justice, which rates states’ asset forfeiture laws in their "Policing for Profit" series, gives Texas a D+ for the "low bar to forfeit" with "no conviction [of the owner] required," "poor protections for innocent third-party property owners," and the ability for law enforcement to keep up to 90% of the value of the seized property, with approximately "70% of forfeiture proceeds go[ing] to law enforcement in most cases."

Given the average cost of legal help and the fact that many of the individuals who are most often subject to forfeiture are low income, Texas Appleseed decided to create resources illuminating the process, including a guide for individuals who want to recover property they believe was wrongfully siezed.  Consequently, along with working to change the statutory scheme of asset forfeiture in Texas, Texas Appleseed set about creating educational videos and a toolkit aimed at a pro se defendant.

Combining Texas Bar Foundation funding and the skills of Dykema Cox Smith attorneys Phylis Speedlin, Heidi Naasko, Jacqueline Allen, and Milo Madole, Texas Appleseed has now created a Civil Asset Forfeiture Toolkit that will be available by the end of the year.  Thanks to the in-depth research by Dykema Cox Smith, the toolkit will consist of (1) two videos, one that explains what civil asset forfeiture is and one that provides an overview of the legal procedures involved; and (2) an online toolkit that contains a general discussion of civil asset forfeiture, a question and answer section, sample court documents, a checklist for appearing in court, and a glossary of common legal terms in asset forfeiture cases.  Until Texas makes changes to its asset forfeiture laws, this toolkit will exist to help everyday Texans protect their property rights.

Thank you Dykema Cox Smith, and Happy Pro Bono Week!!!