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‘LEGAL THEFT’: Texas class action lawsuit aims to make it harder for police, prosecutors to seize cash

A Texas judge cleared a hurdle for a constitutional class action lawsuit alleging law enforcement in one of the nation’s largest counties regularly seize cash and cars from people never convicted of a crime.

“Harris County has one of the most abusive forfeiture programs in the country,” said attorney Wesley Hottot of the Institute of Justice, the nonprofit libertarian law firm arguing the case. 

“They have police out specifically looking for cash, they have police out specifically looking for cars that can be seized,” he added. “And wouldn’t you know it, they find cash and they find cars to seize.”

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The lawsuit stems from a 2019 traffic stop on Interstate 10 near Houston. A deputy pulled over Ameal Woods, allegedly for following a truck too closely. The deputy didn’t ticket Woods, but he did take all the cash Woods had in his car.

Woods, a trucker from Mississippi, said he had saved $42,300 to buy a second tractor-trailer and expand his business and was on his way to Houston to look at used trailers and trucks.

Harris County officials, though, alleged the vacuum-sealed bundles of cash could be connected to criminal activity, possibly money laundering or drug trafficking, according to court documents. 

They have police out specifically looking for cash … and wouldn’t you know it, they find cash and they find cars to seize.

— Wesley Hottot, Institute for Justice senior attorney

The deputy seized Woods’ money in a process known as civil asset forfeiture. It’s meant to punish and deter criminal activity by depriving criminals of property that is used in or acquired through illegal activities. But critics have called it “legal theft,” arguing police and prosecutors often abuse the practice and treat anyone who carries a large amount of cash as guilty.

Under civil asset forfeiture, the seized cash or other belongings are on trial, not the property owner. So no criminal conviction is required.

Left, two taped bundles, right, three stacks of cash

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This May, four years after Woods’ money was taken, IJ argued in civil court that Harris County should have to return it. But the jury sided with prosecutors, ruling that law enforcement had probable cause to believe the $41,680 was contraband.  

Prosecutors celebrated the win and wrote in a press release that Woods had been “paid to transport the money to Houston to purchase illegal narcotics and then transport the drugs back to Mississippi.”

“The jury has spoken,” prosecutor Angela Beavers said in the release. “Do not come to Houston intending to profit from illegal narcotics trafficking.”

The DA’s office did not respond to an email Friday seeking comment on the suit and asking whether officials planned to pursue any criminal charges against Woods or the unidentified individual they say paid him to buy drugs. Nor did the Harris County Sheriff’s Office respond to questions about their forfeiture practices.

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But Woods’ fight isn’t over. He and his partner Jordan Davis are named plaintiffs in the separate class action lawsuit accusing Harris County of violating the Texas Constitution by seizing property based on “mere suspicion of criminal activity,” denying property owners the chance to promptly challenge the seizure, and creating a financial incentive for abuse by allowing police and prosecutors to keep 100% of forfeiture proceeds. In Harris County, the sheriff’s office and district attorney both have divisions specifically assigned to asset forfeitures.

The lawsuit could include dozens of other drivers, since, according to IJ’s court filings, at least 113 forfeiture petitions filed between June 2016 and June 2021 were “based on a form affidavit written by an officer who was not present at the time and place of seizure.”

Harris County officials had asked District Court Judge Robert Schaffer to dismiss the case, arguing the county is immune from the suit. But earlier this month, Schaffer rejected the immunity claim and allowed the constitutional challenge to proceed, according to IJ.

IJ attorneys filed this week to officially link Woods’ individual case with the class action.

Jordan Davis and Ameal Woods stand outside in Mississippi

Hottot scoffed when asked about the DA’s statement that “evidence showed” Woods planned to buy and sell drugs.

“They didn’t prove that, of course,” he said. “They couldn’t identify a person that he was going to buy drugs from, they couldn’t tell us what drugs, they couldn’t tell us what amount or that he’d sold drugs in the past or had done so since.”

“It’s just this police officer’s hunch from one interaction on the side of the road,” he added.

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