On Tuesday, Ameal Woods and Jordan Davis—a Mississippi couple that lost their life savings on the side of I-10 after Harris County officers seized their cash and sent them on their way—got the news they have waited more than a year to hear. Harris County District Court Judge Robert Schaffer issued an order rejecting the county’s claim of immunity and allowing their constitutional challenge to proceed.
“We are incredibly grateful to be able to proceed with our case,” said Ameal Woods, a commercial truck driver represented by IJ in his fight. “I’m glad that, after all I’ve been through, the truth will prevail. Carrying cash is not a crime.”
This decision marks an early and important victory in a case seeking to enforce the Texas Constitution’s protections to stop the unconstitutional practices used by Harris County officials to seize and forfeit cash and cars from people never convicted of a crime.Harris County has an unconstitutional financial incentive to seize and forfeit cash and other property without probable cause and to do so excessively, sweeping in innocent people and property. Its practice of using form affidavits, copy and paste allegations, and tough pressure tactics instead of evidence of crimes violates due process, private property protections, and other constitutional rights.
Judge Schaffer’s ruling paves the way for a challenge to Harris County’s unconstitutional practice of using civil forfeiture as a funding scheme—the same unconstitutional practice used to forfeit Ameal and Jordan’s life savings without either of them being charged with a crime.
“This decision is a remarkable victory for holding government officials accountable to the Texas Constitution,” said IJ Senior Attorney Wesley Hottot. “The county’s outlandish claims of immunity from suit were rightly rejected. No government actor is above the state’s highest law.”
Because Texas forfeiture proceedings are civil actions, most constitutional protections afforded to criminal defendants do not apply to property owners—like Ameal and Jordan—that try to get their property back. It is not even necessary for the government to prove that the property owner is guilty of a crime. There is no conviction requirement. Officers seize cash, cars, and property without ever arresting anyone.
As bad as Texas’ statewide forfeiture laws are, the situation is even worse in Harris County. The county has established a clear pattern and practice of playing fast and loose with the facts to meet even the low bar in civil forfeiture proceedings. The county’s evidence for forfeiture proceedings routinely amounts to nothing more than a boilerplate list of vague accusations and unverified claims of after-the-fact alerts from drug-sniffing dogs after the money is already seized. Frequently the law enforcement officer signing the affidavits used as evidence in forfeiture proceedings was not even present at the scene of the seizure, relying entirely on second-hand knowledge. Harris County forfeiture filings reveal a troubling pattern of relying on these second-hand affidavits written with the same copy-and-paste language to permanently keep seized property. Judge Schaffer’s ruling yesterday clears another hurdle to stopping this unconstitutional practice.