Civil Asset Forfeiture

Lawsuit Challenging Houston Asset Forfeiture Program Says Police Use Stock Language To Seize Cash Without Probable Cause

A couple claims the Harris County Sheriff's Office in Texas seized their life savings two years ago on suspicion of drug trafficking. A new lawsuit says they're not the only ones.

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Ameal Woods was driving near Houston in May 2019 when he was pulled over by a Harris County Sheriff's deputy, allegedly for driving too close to a semi-truck. The deputy let him go without a ticket or a warning, but he did take one one thing for his troubles: Woods' and his wife's life savings. 

The deputy seized $43,200 in cash that he found in the rental car Woods was driving, money that Woods and Davis say they planned on using to possibly purchase a tractor-trailer for Woods' trucking business. Carrying large amounts of cash is legal, but the deputy seized it under suspicion that Woods was a drug trafficker using a practice known as civil asset forfeiture.

Now Woods and his wife, Jordan Davis, are the lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed Monday in Texas district court against Harris County and the Harris County District Attorney by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm. The suit alleges that the county has a practice of seizing cash through civil forfeiture without probable cause, relying on boilerplate language and vague allegations to seize and keep property.

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can legally seize property—cash, cars, and even houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity like drug trafficking, whether or not the owner has been charged with a crime.

Law enforcement groups say civil forfeiture is an essential tool to disrupt organized drug trafficking. However, civil liberties groups say the practice is profoundly tilted against owners, who often bear the burden of proving their innocence and fighting in court for months, sometimes years, to try and win back their own property.

"It's two years later, and I still have the same reaction thinking about it," Woods said about the seizure in a press release. "I just get depressed all over again. We hope we can get our savings back and make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else."

The lawsuit alleges that Harris County prosecutors have a pattern of seeking civil forfeitures based on boilerplate affidavits, written by police officers who were not at the scene. The Institute for Justice found that Harris County prosecutors filed at least 113 forfeiture petitions since 2016 that used stock language and identical phrases, each one noting that a police drug dog alerted on the property at some point after the seizure, each one written by an officer who was not at the scene. The use of boilerplate language led to errors in the affidavits, such as contradictory dates and incorrectly stating what property was seized.

It's a practice that Institute for Justice managing attorney Arif Panju calls "copy-and-pasting your way to probable cause," and he says it doesn't pass constitutional muster. 

In addition, the lawsuit claims that Harris County's forfeiture practices fail to provide owners with prompt hearings to challenge property seizures, require owners to prove their own innocence, and create perverse profit incentives for law enforcement, all of which violates the Texas constitution.

Forfeiture proceeds in the county go straight into the budgets of the district attorney's office and the Harris County Sheriff's Office. The lawsuit says the sheriff had paid about $2.3 million annually in salaries and overtime—all of which comes from forfeiture proceeds.

"Absent intervention from this Court, Harris County will continue to unconstitutionally seize and forfeit property from scores if not hundreds of new individuals every year, without probable cause, without due process, and often with the same affiant relying on identical hearsay testimony in some two-thirds of cases," the Institute for Justice argues in its petition.

The Institute for Justice has successfully challenged civil forfeiture practices in other jurisdictions. Most recently, the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kermit Warren, a New Orleans grandfather who had roughly $28,000 seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration based on flimsy accusations of drug trafficking. Warren, like Davis, said he was carrying cash to possibly buy a tow truck to start a scrapping business. He was never charged with a crime.

In 2018, Philadelphia agreed to reform its forfeiture program and pay out settlements to alleged victims as part of a class-action lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice. The organization is also currently litigating a class-action lawsuit on behalf of travelers who have had large amounts of cash seized from them at airports by federal agents.

Around 35 states have passed some form of civil forfeiture reform over the past decade in response to outrageous stories exposed by civil liberties groups and news outlets. However, no such legislation has passed in Texas, despite years of effort by advocates, and the Institute for Justice says the state has some of the worst forfeiture laws in the country.

"The existing legal remedies are totally inadequate to compensate [Woods and Davis] for having their money taken for over two years," Panj says. "We're hoping that real, meaningful constitutional relief ensures that their rights are protected, their money is returned, and everyone else's rights are protected, too."

The Harris County District Attorney's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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  1. Cops? Highway robbers? HOW does one tell the difference?!?

    1. The uniforms, and a badge. Other than that, hard to say.

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  2. As always: Go IJ! Tear ’em a new one.

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    1. Abso-fucking-lutely, got them set to my Amazon Smile Charity (someone else suggested that here); along with my yearly donations to them.

    2. Agreed. The Institute for Justice does great work.

      Asset forfeiture is a horrific policy that nonetheless enjoys broad, bipartisan political support. Everybody likes money, even more if it wasn’t yours to begin with.

  3. More anti-cop crap from progressive Reason.

    1. More anti-constitution crap from a Trumpfan.

      1. FYI, sarcasmic was being sarcastic as usual here. He’s neither a fan of the cops, nor of Trump!

        BTW, here’s my favorite fairly-recent article about Trump. It is far more factual than an editorial… Only little-so, an editorial.

        https://www.salon.com/2021/04/11/trumps-big-lie-and-hitlers-is-this-how-americas-slide-into-totalitarianism-begins/
        Trump’s Big Lie and Hitler’s: Is this how America’s slide into totalitarianism begins?

        1. Salon – what a douche.

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  4. Civil forfeiture is an abomination that needs to be done away with entirely.

    In the meantime, legislatures should work to remove the perverse incentives associated with it. All proceeds from CF should only ever go into victim restitution funds and never ever into law enforcement coffers or even general funds.

  5. Whence Comes The Authority?

    From the novel, Retribution Fever:
    The obverse had been a practice known as “civil forfeiture”. Innocent until proven guilty was a bedrock principle of U.S. justice. In most states, if a police officer merely suspected that property was connected to a crime, he could seize it without any actual evidence of wrongdoing. Through a federal program called “Equitable Sharing”, police could confiscate eighty percent of seized value. To recover that which was rightfully theirs, Americans must have proven that the property had no connection to a crime.

    [Optional Note for Readers: The practice had begun with the British several hundred years ago in order to deal with pirates beyond the reach of maritime law, judging the goods guilty of the crime, if not the accused. During the War Between the States, the Union adopted the practice to confiscate Northern property owned by Southerners. In 1921, the U.S. Supreme Court in J. W. Goldsmith, Jr.-Grant Co. v. United States endorsed the practice. Early on, however, it dealt more with payment of customs-duties and rarely applied to ordinary citizens until 1984 when Congress created the “Assets Forfeiture Fund” within the Department of Justice supposedly to impede drug-trafficking. The program generalized from there, as do such programs fostering theft by government.]

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  6. never goto Houston

    1. This.

      My relatives have been told not to visit, despite the great food. Just too damn dangerous down here right now. And the weather is like living under Satan’s nutsack for the next month or so. How did people live here before air conditioning? No wonder they had a, ‘he needed killin,’ defense.

  7. What excuse will they use for not requiring Harris County to refund all $2.3M?

  8. In 2019 cops stole more money than the robbers.

  9. Want to seize a drug dealer’s house? Great. Just do it AFTER the conviction. Seizing money without due process and then using it to pay the officers who seized it is a gross conflict of interest. There was a little town in Texas, Lavon, that was a notorious speed trap. When the state said they had to turn 80% of the collected fines over to the state, guess what? They disbanded their ‘police’ force. It was all a scam.

  10. This political paradigm, not “mine”, therefore not “our” system, is forced on all by a majority. It is immoral, irrational, unsustainable, as should be more and more obvious every day.
    No one who has directly suffered its injustice is blind to this, despite being so before. However, those who have not been immediate victims tend to ignore gross injustices of others. I think this is because they have been brainwashed in public school and mainstream media. A common phrase used to be,”This is still America”, meaning there are some rights we enjoy. This is no longer said. Some officials get away with murder (right to life), kidnapping (right to liberty), theft (right to property), terrorizing (right to happiness).

  11. The pathetic irony here is the Asset Forfeiture laws are NOT utilized by the government against those businesses & individuals who are GUILTY of having illegal aliens in the employ. Once the illegal is caught and gives up his employer, the illegal alien should get a financial reward and the government should confiscate the business’s or individuals assets.
    If you truly care about stopping illegal immigration, utilize these laws against those profiteers who are making their continued presence in our country illegally possible. I contend that these employers of illegal aliens are far more dangerous to our society than any drug dealer. Hell the Secklers from Purdue were convicted of drug dealing and they personally lost NOTHING!

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