Mississippi driver Ameal Woods worried about thieves when he came to Texas with $42,000 to buy trucking equipment in 2019. So he took precautions.
He separated his cash into two groups: one for a trailer and the other for a tractor, if he found one at the right price. Then he vacuum-sealed both bundles, wrapped them in tape and placed them in the trunk of his car.
The security measures should have been enough. But Woods discovered a different threat when a sergeant from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office stopped him on Interstate 10 near Houston, accused him of following another vehicle too closely, and launched a roadside interrogation.
One of the sergeant’s first questions was about cash.
Carrying cash is not a crime, and cash transactions are normal for secondhand truck dealers. Woods had nothing to hide, so he volunteered information. He explained that he had scraped together his life savings and borrowed additional funds from his wife, Jordan Davis, because he wanted to rise from being a truck driver to being a truck owner.
Unfortunately, his innocence did not protect him from what happened next. Despite making no arrest or even issuing a citation, the sergeant took the cash and sent Woods on his way, penniless.
Following the seizure, Harris County prosecutors sued for the cash using a process called civil forfeiture. The money making scheme, which remains legal in Texas despite several bipartisan attempts at reform, allows the government to keep assets permanently without convicting anyone of wrongdoing.
Criminal charges are optional. Using civil forfeiture, law enforcement agencies routinely take title to property based on mere suspicion that it was involved in illegal activity. Meanwhile, Woods and Davis must prove a negative and show that their cash is innocent to get it back.
The rigged process turns the justice system upside down. No one should have to prove their innocence to keep the fruits of their own labor, yet Harris County police and prosecutors put dozens of property owners in that position each year. Rather than accept the abuse, Woods and Davis teamed up with our nonprofit law firm, the Institute for Justice, and fought back with a class-action lawsuit against the county.
The couple filed paperwork on Aug. 30 to reclaim their money and to ensure that the Texas Constitution protects everyone from due process violations. “We hope we can get our savings back and make sure this does not happen to anyone else,” Woods says.
Forfeiture abuse in Texas is fueled by an unconstitutional profit incentive. The state not only allows law enforcement agencies to seize and keep property without proving anything in criminal court, but it allows those same agencies to split 100 percent of the proceeds among themselves.
Succumbing to the temptation, Harris County has turned civil forfeiture into a commercial enterprise. During the three-year span from 2018 through 2020, local agencies banked $23.6 million in forfeiture proceeds. Millions of these dollars covered salaries and overtime pay.
Case filings show how the forfeiture machine works. Using an assembly line approach, the county produces affidavits that recycle stock language from one document to the next, often repeating key allegations word-for-word. Even worse, the same notarized signature appears on affidavit after affidavit, stripping the documents of sworn testimony from anyone with firsthand knowledge.
The cut-and-paste strategy flouts the notion of probable cause. Woods lost his cash based on little more than speculation that it was somehow tied to drugs. The sergeant who conducted the traffic stop found no narcotics or paraphernalia, so he got creative.
He said Woods shifted around in his seat, blinked, and licked his lips, “all signs of stress.” Other allegations were similarly weak. To compensate for the lack of evidence, police and prosecutors picked apart everything Woods said during the roadside interrogation and highlighted any discrepancy they could find. But they never produced even a hint of specific crime.
As hard as Harris County tries, it cannot copy-and-paste its way to probable cause.
People like Woods and Davis deserve individual consideration and the presumption of innocence. When they travel, they deserve protection from highway robbers — not additional threats from police officers patrolling for profit.
Arif Panju is managing attorney of the Institute for Justice’s Texas Office in Austin, and Daryl James is an Institute for Justice writer in Arlington, VA.
Photo: Institute for Justice