Civil Asset Forfeiture

Prosecutors Who Want Credit for Investigating Police Corruption Are Happy To Steal Money From Innocent People

The Harris County, Texas, District Attorney's Office oversees civil forfeitures that make a mockery of justice.


On October 27, 2016, the same day that Houston drug cops searched a house based on a marijuana sale that never happened, they searched the house next door based on a fictional crack cocaine purchase. The first search, at 2807 Nettleton Street, resulted in the arrest of Frederick Jeffery, who was later convicted of possessing methamphetamine based on false testimony by veteran narcotics officer Gerald Goines, the same cop who had invented drug transactions to justify the search warrants. The second search, at 2811 Nettleton Street, resulted in the seizure of about $3,000 from Andre Thomas, who was detained for several hours but never charged.

Thomas' loss pales beside what happened to Jeffery, whose sentence was enhanced because of prior convictions. Jeffery got 25 years in prison, which amounted to five years for each gram of meth that Goines falsely linked to him. But while Jeffery was freed last month after the Harris County District Attorney's Office recommended that his conviction be overturned, Thomas is still waiting to get his money back.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg called Jeffery's case "a due process disaster." His arrest and conviction showed how lax supervisors, incurious prosecutors, deferential judges, credulous jurors, and inattentive defense attorneys let bad cops send innocent people to prison. But at least Jeffery was supposed to get due process. Civil asset forfeiture, the system that authorized Goines to steal Thomas' money, is a due process disaster by design, which somehow does not deter Ogg from taking advantage of it to pad her budget.

Civil forfeiture allows police to seize property based on vague allegations that it is somehow connected to criminal activity. Then the burden is on the owner to get the property back. If he cannot afford to mount a challenge, which may cost more than his property is worth, the government keeps the loot, which is used to supplement the budgets of the same law enforcement agencies that took it.

In Thomas' case, some of the money seems to have gone missing even before Goines' narcotics squad initiated the forfeiture process. In an interview with Houston Chronicle reporter St. John Barned-Smith, Thomas insisted that he had $3,000, about $300 more than the cops reported.

If the difference ended up in Goines' pocket, that would be fully in character for a cop who had a long history of lying to justify searches and arrests, including a 2019 drug raid that killed a middle-aged couple whom Goines falsely accused of selling heroin. That deadly fiasco led to state and federal charges against Goines and a review of his cases by Ogg's office, which so far has resulted in dozens of dismissals and the exoneration of five defendants, including Jeffery.

But the problems with civil forfeiture, which lets the government confiscate property without even bothering to accuse the owner of a crime, go far beyond the misconduct of rogue cops who lie, invent evidence, or otherwise break the law. The real scandal is what the law allows.

Last year, the Institute for Justice filed a state lawsuit challenging forfeiture practices in Harris County. The lead defendant is the Harris County District Attorney's Office—the same agency that is trying to assess and ameliorate the damage done by Goines' outrageous abuses.

The lead plaintiffs in the proposed class action are a Mississippi couple, Ameal Woods and Jordan Davis, who were robbed of $42,300 after they were pulled over by sheriff's deputies on Interstate 10 in May 2019. Woods and Davis were on their way to Houston, where Woods planned to spend the money on a tractor and a trailer for his trucking business. The deputies ostensibly stopped them because they were following another vehicle too closely, although Woods, who was driving, was not cited for that alleged offense. Instead, the cops made off with the couple's life savings.

The district attorney's office filed a forfeiture petition the following month. But Woods and Davis were not notified of the pending action until last August, 27 months after the seizure.

According to the Institute for Justice lawsuit, all of the money Woods and Davis were carrying was obtained legally. The largest share, $22,800, came from Woods' savings. He borrowed $6,500 from his wife and $13,000 from his niece, planning to pay them back after his investment in a tractor-trailer allowed him to expand his business.

The forfeiture petition claimed a drug-detecting dog alerted to the money. But no such dog was present during the stop, which means this alleged canine inspection must have occurred after the deputies already had seized the cash, supposedly based on probable cause to believe it was related to illegal activity. Research has found that as much as 90 percent of U.S. currency carries traces of cocaine, which therefore hardly counts as evidence that the current owner is involved in drug dealing.

"What happened to Ameal and Jordan routinely happens to other property owners in Harris County," the lawsuit says. After reviewing 113 civil forfeiture petitions filed by county prosecutors since 2016, the Institute for Justice found that all of them were "based on a form affidavit written by an officer who was not present at the time and place of seizure." Seventy-nine of the affidavits included identical or closely similar language saying "a K-9 Unit gave a positive response for the odor of narcotics" when presented with the property. Eighty affidavits were written by the same officer who supported the petition seeking forfeiture of the money seized from Woods and Davis, and 92 "involved a dog alert that allegedly was obtained after police seized property."

The lawsuit argues that Harris County's legalized larceny violates the state constitution in several ways: It involves seizures that are not based on probable cause; it does not give property owners a prompt post-seizure hearing; it relies on "hearsay testimony" and "cut-and-paste allegations"; it gives law enforcement agencies a financial incentive to seize first and ask questions later (if ever); and it requires owners to prove their innocence.

This process is so daunting and burdensome that 60 percent of property owners give up without a fight. That works to the advantage of local law enforcement agencies. From 2018 to 2020, the Institute for Justice notes, "Harris County prosecutors added $7.7 million to their budgets" through civil forfeiture. During the same period, "law enforcement agencies in Harris County added $15.9 million to their budgets," and "more than $7.5 million of that money was used to pay salaries and overtime to police officers—the same officers who make decisions about whether to seize property."

Ogg wants credit for investigating the blatantly corrupt behavior of Goines and other officers in the Houston Police Department's Narcotics Division. Meanwhile, her office, which is hardly without blame for prosecuting falsely accused defendants like Jeffery, is eagerly engaged in money-grabbing activities that victimize innocent people and make a mockery of justice.