Forfeiture as Extortion in Jim Wells County, Texas

In August 2005, Javier Gonzalez borrowed a car from his employer at a used car lot in Austin, Texas, and drove to Brownsville to visit his dying aunt, who had helped raised him, and also to make arrangements for her funeral.  He brought more than $10,000 in cash to provide for a proper burial with a coffin and headstone.  She passed away in December 2005.

Before Gonzolez made it to Brownsville, however, he was pulled over because the borrowed Mazda’s front license plate was sitting on the dashboard instead of affixed to the front bumper.  This is a common misunderstanding in Texas—many dealers and motorists think the front plate is optional, and police officers rarely pull them over to tell them otherwise.

When the Jim Wells County Task Force officers found out about the cash, they handcuffed him and took him to a local fire station for more interrogation and a more thorough search of the car.  The search turned up no drugs or other contraband, but officers produced an affidavit saying they were seizing his money and offered him a choice:  Sign away any legal claim to the cash or face money laundering charges and have his boss’ car seized as well.  Feeling he had no other choice, Gonzalez signed.

Gonzalez hired an attorney, however, and in April 2008 won his money back, plus attorney’s fees and an award.  In the settlement, the county denied all accusations and did not admit wrongdoing.

In March 2008, Joe Garza, the District Attorney for Texas’ 79th Judicial District (which includes Jim Wells and neighboring Brooks County) was voted out of office, in large part because of a growing public scandal regarding his use of forfeiture funds.[1]  An audit has revealed that Garza distributed $1.1 million to three favored employees between 2004 and 2008, and many others may have received improper payments for “car allowances, stipends, reimbursements, advances, audits, travel (including to casinos), contract labor and other seemingly illogical purposes.”[2]


[1] Reid, J. (2008, May 16). Highway robbery. The Texas Observer, 10(10), 16.

[2] Cuellar, Jr., M. J. (2009, July 14). State asks for audit of DA’s forfeiture fund; Saenz details ‘the scheme’ to commissioners. Alice Echo-News Journal, npn; Cuellar, Jr., M. J. (2009, August 5). More details emerge from DA forfeiture fund; 46 others received more than $400,000 from fund. Alice Echo-News Journal, npn; Powell, J., & Malan, D. (2009, May 2008). Jim Wells probes drug-fund use; $4.2 million spent by ex-DA Garza. Corpus Christi Caller-Times, p. B17.

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