Loss and Win Combine for Perfect Forfeiture Appeal in Texas
Good things come to those who wait.
That principle proved true once again in November, when IJ’s ambitious challenge to civil forfeiture in Texas made its way back to the appellate courts after a decade-long effort.
In 2014, IJ’s lawsuit aimed at Harris County’s forfeiture program came just one vote shy of obtaining review at the Texas Supreme Court. In a rare move, six of the nine justices wrote separately to outline the type of forfeiture challenge they would like to see in the future.
We now have that case.
The current case involves two parts. We are defending Ameal Woods and Jordan Davis against Harris County’s effort to forfeit their life savings—just over $40,000—which police illegally seized from them based on a suspected connection to drugs. We also brought a major class action seeking to invalidate the county’s abusive seizure practices and strike down Texas’ unconstitutional laws that allow the county to profit from forfeitures and place the burden of proof on property owners to prove their own innocence.
Ameal and Jordan’s forfeiture case went to trial over the summer, when a jury handed down a disappointing verdict. Losing at trial stings, but we’re focused on a bigger prize, and the trial only laid bare the grave injustices built into Texas’ forfeiture process.
After the trial, our team worked behind the scenes to ensure that the other case—our class action—wouldn’t be left behind. Because our legal strategy is aimed at the state high court, we have always wanted the two cases to go up on appeal together. This gives the justices the full picture of the profound constitutional problems that arise when the government takes property for profit and makes people fight for it in civil court. Using this approach, not only do we stand to get Ameal and Jordan’s money back, but together we have a shot at taking down the state’s entire forfeiture machine.
Happily, we scored a major victory in November, when the trial court rejected the state’s effort to dismiss our class action. As a result, both cases began the appeals process simultaneously, and we now have everything we need to make generational change to Texas’ draconian forfeiture scheme.
It took a decade, but we’ve got them right where we want them.
Wesley Hottot is an IJ senior attorney and co-director of IJ’s National Initiative to End Civil Forfeiture.
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