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Texas class action lawsuit takes aim at ‘legal theft’ by cops, prosecutors

A Texas judge has cleared a hurdle in a constitutional class action lawsuit that claims law enforcement in one of the nation’s largest counties routinely seizes cash and cars from people who have never been convicted of a crime. Cleared.

“Harris County has one of the most abusive forfeiture programs in the country,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute of Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law firm handling the case.

“Police are out specifically looking for cash, police are out specifically looking for cars that can be seized,” he added. “And wouldn’t you know it, they found cash and they found a car to seize.”

Sheriff’s deputies seized the life savings of Amer Woods and her partner. They were not charged with a crime, but the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Asset Forfeiture Unit alleged that Woods planned to use the money to buy drugs and bring them back to Mississippi to sell for profit. . (Courtesy of the Institute of Justice)

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The lawsuit stems from a 2019 traffic stop on Interstate 10 near Houston. A police officer pulled over Amer Woods for driving too close to a truck. The deputy did not ticket Woods, but he took all the cash Woods had in his car.

Woods, a truck driver from Mississippi, had saved up $42,300 to expand his business by buying a second tractor-trailer and was on his way to Houston to look at used trailers and trucks. , he said.

However, according to court documents, Harris County authorities argued that the vacuum-sealed bundles of cash could be connected to criminal activity, possibly money laundering or drug trafficking.

They send the police out specifically looking for cash… and wouldn’t you know it, they find cash and they also find cars to impound.

— Wesley Hotott, Senior Counsel, Institute of Justice

Deputies seized Woods’ money in a process known as civil asset forfeiture. It aims to punish and deter criminal activity by depriving criminals of property used in or obtained through illegal activities. But critics call this “legal theft” and say police and prosecutors often abuse the practice, criminalizing those who carry large amounts of cash.

In civil asset forfeiture, the court targets the cash and other possessions that are seized, not the property owner. Therefore, there is no need to be convicted.

Left, 2 bundles taped together, right, 3 bundles of cash.

Harris County prosecutors allege Amer Woods vacuum-sealed $41,680 in cash and secured it with duct tape to mask the smell of drugs. Woods has not been charged with any crime related to the 2019 traffic stop, but a jury in May rejected his bid for restitution. (Courtesy of Harris County District Attorney’s Office)

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In May of this year, four years after Woods’ money was taken, the IJ argued in civil court that Harris County should return the money. But the jury sided with prosecutors, ruling that law enforcement had probable cause to believe the $41,680 was contraband.

Prosecutors celebrated their victory, saying in a press release that Woods “transported funds to purchase illegal drugs to Houston and was then paid to transport the drugs to Mississippi.”

“The jury has made its opinion,” prosecutor Angela Beavers said in a statement. “Please do not come to Houston to profit from illegal drug trafficking,” she said.

On Friday, prosecutors did not respond to an email seeking comment on the case and whether authorities planned to file criminal charges against Woods or the unidentified individuals who allegedly paid for the drug purchases. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office also did not respond to questions about its forfeiture practices.

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But Woods’ battle isn’t over. He and his partner Jordan Davis said Harris County would seize property based on “mere suspicion of criminal activity,” denying the property owner an immediate opportunity to challenge the seizure, and violating the Texas Constitution. He has been named as a plaintiff in a separate class action lawsuit alleging violations. Provides financial incentives for abuse by allowing police and prosecutors to keep 100% of forfeiture proceeds. In Harris County, both the sheriff’s office and district attorney have units dedicated to asset forfeiture.

Dozens of other drivers could be included in the lawsuit, according to . Documents submitted by IJ to courtat least 113 forfeiture applications filed between June 2016 and June 2021 were “based on affidavits written in the form of police officers who were not present at the time and location of the seizure.” .

Harris County officials had asked U.S. District Court Judge Robert Schaefer to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the county is immune from the lawsuit. But earlier this month, Schaefer rejected the immunity claim and allowed the constitutional challenge to proceed, according to the IJ.

IJ attorneys filed a motion this week to formally link Woods’ individual lawsuit with the class action.

Jordan Davis and Amer Woods outside in Mississippi

Amir Woods and Jordan Davis accuse Harris County authorities of violating the Texas Constitution by using boilerplate affidavits, copy-pasting allegations and “severe pressure tactics” to seize drivers’ property He has been named as a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit. (Courtesy of the Institute of Justice)

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Asked about prosecutors’ statements that “the evidence shows” that Woods was planning to buy and sell drugs, Hottot laughed.

“Of course they didn’t prove it,” he said. “They couldn’t identify the person he was trying to buy the drugs from, they couldn’t tell us what kind of drugs they were buying, they couldn’t tell us the amount, they couldn’t tell us if he had sold drugs in the past. ​​or whether they have ever sold it since then.”

“That was just a hunch that this officer got from a conversation on the street,” he added.

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