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.
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.