Texas jury rejects trucker’s claim to seized money

May 23, 2023

Chuck Robinson


A jury has ruled against a truck driver whose money was seized as he was traveling to purchase a second tractor-trailer.

The trial started last Tuesday, May 16. The jury delivered its verdict Monday afternoon. More than $40,000 was seized during a traffic stop on Interstate 10 in eastern Harris County, Texas.

Deputies from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said Ameal Woods was following a box truck too closely in his rental car on the morning of May 14, 2019, so they stopped him.

They did not issue a ticket or a warning for following too closely. No charges or citations were issued. Woods gave them permission to search his vehicle. In the trunk, Woods had two plastic vacuum-sealed packages containing money.

The seized money, Woods said, came from his own earnings and other sources, including a loan from Jordan Davis, his partner and the mother of his two children.

Attorneys from the libertarian nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice defended Woods’ and Davis’ claim to the money pro bono. The lawsuit was filed as a class action aimed at ending the entrenched practice of officers seizing money on what were described as thin pretexts and when no charges are filed against the owner the money.

“We’re obviously frustrated by the result and plan to appeal the many constitutional issues this case presents,” Arif Panju, managing attorney of the Institute for Justice’s Texas state office, said after the trial.

Among the constitutional issues:

  • Challenging the district attorney’s ability to forfeit property based on mere suspicion, without proving any crime
  • Forcing innocent owners to prove their property innocent.
  • Incentivizing forfeiture with a profit incentive under Texas law that hands district attorneys and sheriff’s offices the proceeds.

“We look forward to litigating our class action,” Panju said.

The case for seizing Woods’ money

Woods was traveling from his home in Natchez, Miss., when he was pulled over on I-10.

The seized money was not counted at the traffic stop. Sheriff’s office employees later counted $41,680. A sheriff’s office dog was reported having later detected the odor of drugs on the money.

The money was seized in May 2019. An investigation was begun June 2021, according to the lawsuit complaint. It took Harris County 27 months to serve Woods and Davis with notice of the state’s petition to forfeit their property.

During the five-day trial, Harris County attorneys grilled Woods about the sources of his income, which included family members, gambling, racing horses, working, selling food, conducting parties, and other sources. He also was grilled on the location of his residence, either an apartment or a rural trailer.

He also was asked why he didn’t shop for a truck or trailer closer to home.

It was suggested that he was going to Houston to buy illegal drugs or that he was laundering drug money.

Officers said Woods acted nervous during the traffic stop, including nervous laughing, pulling on his shirt, trying to lead conversation, and voluntarily explaining he had a CDL.

While individual gestures did not necessarily suggest Woods was lying and was involved in illegal business, taken together they added up, the lead officer at the traffic stop said during the trial.

“My training, my experience, tells me this is drug money,” he said.

Constitutional questions

The level of evidence for seizing money and taking it through civil asset forfeiture is much lower than to charge someone with a crime.

The complaint brought on behalf of Woods and Davis made three general allegations:

  • Texas has no procedure for obtaining a prompt, post-seizure hearing before civil-forfeiture proceedings. The process takes weeks, months or years. This makes it difficult for property owners to challenge an officer’s probable-cause determination.
  • A person who asserts their innocence in civil-forfeiture proceedings is required to prove their own innocence.
  • Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors keep the proceeds from civil-forfeiture cases, which is a strong incentive to seize cash.

Read the original complaint here.  LL

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