HOUSTON—Harris County police and prosecutors systematically abuse the constitutional rights of drivers, seizing cash and other property without probable cause, and quickly filing lawsuits to keep the seized cash in their own budgets using civil forfeiture. Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ)—a national nonprofit law firm—is fighting back with a class-action lawsuit challenging Harris County’s unconstitutional civil forfeiture program.
IJ represents Ameal Woods and Jordan Davis, a couple from Natchez, Mississippi, who lost their $42,300 life savings on the side of Interstate 10. Ameal was en route to purchase a tractor-trailer to expand his trucking business when Harris County deputies pulled him over for allegedly “following a tractor trailer too closely.” Once Ameal told them he was traveling with cash, they took it and sent him on his way without so much as a warning. Now the couple is teaming up with IJ to spearhead a class-action lawsuit that seeks to end forfeiture abuse in Texas’ largest county and the broader Texas practice of allowing law enforcement to police for profit by keeping cash they seize to pay their own salaries.
Harris County’s civil forfeiture case filings tend to follow a typical pattern of flouting probable cause. Ameal Woods and Jordan Davis are among the more than 100 people caught in Harris County’s forfeiture machine in forfeiture cases that rely on a single form affidavit. They contain identical form affidavits and stock allegations in case after case, each noting a K-9 alert took place at some point after the seizure, and are not signed by an officer at the scene of the seizure with actual knowledge. What’s more, Harris County seized Ameal and Jordan’s life savings despite not arresting anyone for any crime. Under Texas’ civil forfeiture law, to get their property back Ameal and Jordan must prove a negative—that their property is innocent—flipping the principle of innocent until proven guilty on its head.
“It’s two years later, and I still have the same reaction thinking about it. I just get depressed all over again,” Ameal said about forfeiture. “We hope we can get our savings back and make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Carrying cash is not a crime. Not only was it legal for Ameal to drive with cash, he did so with the intention of fulfilling his American Dream: to expand his own business to provide for his and Jordan’s two daughters. On the morning of May 14, 2019, that dream was within reach when Ameal got into a rental car and began driving towards Houston. But that dream came crashing down when Ameal was pulled over in Harris County.
One of the first questions the officer asked was whether there was cash in the car. Ameal had nothing to hide and let the officer search the vehicle. Minutes later, the cash was seized, Ameal was let go, and soon Harris County prosecutors in its forfeiture unit were suing the cash in civil court to keep it permanently. Over the next two years Ameal and Jordan heard nothing from Harris County.
“The government cannot copy-and-paste its way to probable cause,” said IJ Managing Attorney Arif Panju. ” Probable cause means more than simply having a large sum in cash and an after-the-fact dog alert.”
Ameal and Jordan’s lawsuit asserts six categories of claims against Harris County’s forfeiture system. Currently, Texas has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws in the nation, earning a D+ in the Institute for Justice’s comprehensive compilation of civil forfeiture data, Policing for Profit III.
“Who could afford to have their life savings taken away for more than two years with no hearing and no opportunity to go before a judge?” said IJ Senior Attorney Wesley Hottot. “People in this country are innocent until proven guilty. But Texas’ law flips that principle on its head: Your property is presumed guilty and you must prove your own innocence.”
In response to lawsuits by IJ, federal judges in Albuquerque and Philadelphia have shut down those cities’ unconstitutional forfeiture programs. And in 2019, IJ secured a unanimous victory from the U.S. Supreme Court holding that the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment applies in civil forfeiture cases and in every state.