Texas Case Illustrates Raw Tyranny of Civil Asset Forfeiture
"Cash is not a crime," says victim of $42,300 plunder by Harris County Sheriff's Office
On May 14, 2019, Ameal Woods drove from rural Mississippi to Houston with $42,300 in cash. He was ready to achieve a major goal he and his wife had worked, saved and borrowed for: Purchasing a second semi truck for the fledgling trucking business he operated with his brother, and perhaps a trailer, too.
Along Interstate 10 in Texas, however, his entrepreneurial dream turned into a nightmare. It started when Woods was pulled over by a Harris County sheriff’s deputy who claimed Woods had been following too closely behind the truck in front of him.
The deputy asked Woods if he was carrying drugs or money. Seeking to be cooperative, Woods said he was carrying cash in the trunk and consented to a search of his vehicle.
The deputy proceeded to the trunk, took the money, handed Woods a receipt, and sent him on his way without charging him with anything.
“All my cash. All my life savings. All my dreams. He got it,” says Woods in an Institute for Justice video profile embedded at the end of this article.
Woods had become a victim of civil asset forfeiture, a controversial practice that authorizes police to seize money, cars, trucks, houses or anything else they merely accuse of having a link to criminal activity—regardless of whether the property owner is charged with a crime.
Woods says all his money was legally acquired: $22,800 from his own savings, $13,000 borrowed from his niece and another $6,500 lent to him by his wife, Jordan Davis.
Davis says she’d worked overtime shifts in her job as a restaurant cashier to help accumulate the money Woods needed to pursue his business goals.
“I worked hard for that money,” says Davis. “There were days that I didn’t even want to go to work because I’m tired, and to just have it taken, with no explanation is terrible. How do you start over?”
It was an even more devastating blow for Woods: “All of my drive, all of my motivation, everything was gone.” He went into a deep depression. Rather than expanding his business, he’s been reduced to doing odd jobs.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Puts Property on Trial
Violating the American justice system’s cornerstone presumption of innocence, those whose property has been taken via civil asset forfeiture must prove their property wasn’t involved in a crime—or lose it forever.
In a real sense, the property itself is on trial. That's reflected in the bizarre case names associated with civil asset forfeiture proceedings, such as “Nebraska v. One 1970 2-Door Sedan Rambler (Gremlin).”
That particular case illustrates that, even where a crime is charged, civil asset forfeiture can still be the instrument of terrible injustice: Police seized the Gremlin after arresting its owner for mere marijuana possession, saying it had been used to “transport” marijuana. The seizure was upheld by the state supreme court.
Property is regularly taken from third-party owners too. For example, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office has pursued the forfeitures of houses simply because a child living in the home had been caught selling drugs.
One calculation puts the median value of forfeited property at $1,276. Many victims of civil asset forfeiture, weighing the time and expense of challenging the seizure against the uncertainty of victory, simply surrender to the government—a dynamic that only encourages police to keep on taking people’s property without charges.
Woods, however, isn’t backing down. Thanks to the Institute for Justice—which calls itself “the national law firm for liberty”—Woods and his wife are now lead plaintiffs in a class action suit against Harris County, a suit that claims the county’s confiscations from him and others violate the Texas constitution’s prohibitions against unreasonable seizures.
News Flash: Law-Abiding People Carry Cash
According to the police affidavit, Woods’ money was presumed to be connected to “illegal activity” because:
It was a large amount
The money was vacuum-packaged and wrapped in tape
Woods appeared nervous
Some of the money belonged to someone else: his wife, Jordan Davis
Sometime after the seizure, a police dog allegedly alerted to the presence of narcotics (more on this later)
For most people, the idea of holding and carrying tens of thousands of dollars in cash for legal, everyday purposes is simultaneously unnerving and inconceivable.
However, according to a 2019 FDIC survey, 7.1 million American households are “unbanked,” meaning no member of the household has a checking or savings account. The proportion of unbanked households is higher among black, Hispanic, American Indian, lower-income and less-educated households.
Woods, who grew up and still lives in rural Mississippi, says his father didn’t trust banks. Long ago, he told his son he’d attempted to withdraw his money from a bank, only to have the employees pretend he had no account. Woods was taught from a young age to keep his money close, and he made it a practice to cash any checks he received.
When it came time to go shopping for a semi truck and trailer, Woods viewed cash as a plus, believing it drives better deals when negotiating with owner-operators and shipping businesses looking to offload secondhand tractors and trailers.
As for Harris County’s claimed alarm over the fact that the money was wrapped in plastic, Woods says he’s long vacuum-bundled his savings to protect it from the elements and to facilitate hiding it around his property.
His system worked—he says a home burglary a few years ago left his cash stash intact. If only he knew in May 2019 what he knows now: In addition to burglars, we should all keep our cash hidden from the police too.
In Harris County, Plunder with a Pattern
As with laws in many other states, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure §59.06(c) creates a sinister profit motive, authorizing police departments, prosecutors and municipal, county and state governments to keep seized property and use it for their own purposes.
According to the petition in the class action suit, civil asset forfeitures added $7.7 million to Harris County’s law enforcement salary and overtime budgets between 2018 and 2020.
Even more troubling than that steep, self-serving tally are two patterns seen in the seizures.
Remember how the Harris County Sheriff’s Office claimed that a dog alerted for the presence of illegal drugs after officers had already seized Woods’ money? The Institute for Justice found 92 other cases where the alleged dog alert came after the seizure.
Drug-sniffing dogs are deeply problematic under any circumstances—various studies have pegged the false-alert rate at 66 to 80% or more. Their use is even more dubious where property is being seized without charges filed, as the unverifiable claim of a dog’s reaction merely serves to pad a vague accusation that cash or other property is connected to illegal activity.
Of course, within a system that empowers deputies to enlarge their own overtime fund, we can’t ignore the possibility that an enthusiastic dog-handler influenced or over-interpreted the dog’s behavior—or that the handler or someone else made it up entirely.
A second pattern emerges from the Institute for Justice’s scrutiny of Harris County seizures: As with the Ameal Woods case, every one of Harris County’s 113 civil-forfeiture petitions filed since 2016 was based on an affidavit signed by an officer who wasn’t at the scene. Eighty of them were signed by the same person.
Between that and the fact that the affidavits use copy-and-paste, nearly identical language, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has seemingly built a civil asset forfeiture assembly line, one that’s focused on relentlessly padding the agency’s budget by seizing property from the public it purportedly exists to serve.
Those who do try to contest Harris County seizures face long waits for justice. Woods’ $41,680 was seized in May 2019, but the agency’s procedural sloth meant he had to wait until this fall—two years and four months—for his case to actually start.
A Nationwide Scourge
This article uses Harris County to illustrate civil asset forfeiture, but it’s important to realize the practice exists in various forms throughout most of the United States, and everywhere federal agencies are present. Only a small handful of states have abolished it entirely.
In 2018 alone, 42 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Justice and Treasury departments took in over $3 billion in forfeitures. Buried in those billions are many more agonizing personal experiences like that of Ameal Woods.
Though some states offer better protections for property rights than others, “federal equitable sharing” creates a loophole: State and local police can team up with federal officers to seize property under federal law and pocket up to 80% of the haul, with no regard to what state law says. (You can learn about your state’s forfeiture policy in this Institute for Justice report; state profiles start on page 59.)
The class action suit against Harris County is one of several active cases against civil asset forfeiture being pursued by the Institute for Justice. Davis says his participation isn’t just for him: “I’m fighting for myself. I’m fighting for others. I’m fighting for everybody it happened to in the past. I’m fighting for my dream. Cash is not a crime. For no one.”