Class action suit challenges civil asset forfeiture in Houston
The practice of law enforcement seizing, and keeping – money and property without charging (never mind convicting) anyone of a crime is getting some pushback in one of the nation’s largest cities: Houston.
There, the Institute for Justice is tackling in a class action lawsuit. The group says the Harris County civil asset forfeiture program, is little more than “police and prosecutors systematically abuse the constitutional rights of drivers.”
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.
Which is the epitome of abuse. The real outrage, though, is the practice is widespread, and remains highly lucrative for law enforcement agencies masquerading as highway robbers.