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Lawsuit: Texas Cops Use “Cut And Paste Allegations” To Seize Couple’s Life Savings

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at September 13, 2021

Without even being charged with a crime, a Mississippi couple had their life savings—more than $40,000—seized by law enforcement in Harris County, Texas. Reportedly, the confiscation was based on “cut-and-paste allegations” written by an officer who wasn’t even present at the scene.

Represented by the Institute for Justice, the couple, Ameal Woods and Jordan Davis, have now filed a class-action lawsuit arguing that the county’s use of civil forfeiture violates the Texas Constitution’s protections against unreasonable seizures and being deprived of property without “due course of the law of the land.”

“It’s two years later, and I still have the same reaction thinking about it. I just get depressed all over again,” Ameal recounted. “We hope we can get our savings back and make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Along with his brother, Ameal Woods runs a small trucking business based in Natchez, Mississippi. With precisely one tractor-trailer between the two of them, Ameal was eager to expand the business. Instead of buying an expensive, brand-new tractor-trailer from a commercial dealership, Ameal began searching the much more affordable secondhand market, combing through classified ads at truck stops.

He eventually found some possible options in Houston, where the going rate for secondhand equipment could cost as little as a third of the price of new equipment. All told, Ameal was able to scrape together $42,300: $22,800 came from his life savings, while his wife and his niece lent him $6,500 and $13,000 respectively.  

As is customary, secondhand sellers greatly prefer cash, and can even sell for less if payment is made in full on the spot. That suited Ameal just fine: He inherited a deep distrust of banks from his father, who encountered deep hostility growing up in southern Mississippi. Ameal also has a long habit of vacuum sealing and concealing his cash, a practice that kept his life savings safe when his home was robbed. 

With cash in hand, Ameal set out for Houston in May 2019. But while he was driving on I-10, Ameal was pulled over by Sergeant Wade from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Wade claimed Ameal, who has a commercial driver’s license, was “following a tractor-trailer too closely” and then began peppering Ameal with questions.

Ameal told the sergeant he was driving with a large amount of cash to expand his trucking business. After getting Ameal’s consent to search the car, Sergeant Wade quickly found the cash and promptly seized it all, claiming it was connected to the drug trade. However, no drugs or other contraband were found in Ameal’s car. Nor were Ameal and his wife ever charged with a crime; he didn’t even get a traffic ticket.

Less than a month after the seizure, prosecutors filed a civil-forfeiture complaint against the cash. Yet Ameal and Jordan were only served notice last month—more than 800 days after their cash was seized.  

Further undermining due process, the forfeiture complaint relied on an affidavit written by Officer Gregory Nason, who, according to the lawsuit, “was not at the scene when the money was seized from Ameal.”

Nor was this an isolated incident. The Institute for Justice identified 113 affidavits “written by an officer who was not at the time and place of seizure.” Incredibly, 80 of those affidavits were written by the same Officer Nason in Ameal’s case. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such “cut and paste testimony” was rife with errors, like noticeably different fonts, wrong dates entered, and even referring to cash when the seized property was actually a vehicle.

Meanwhile, 92 cases (including Ameal’s case) involved drug dogs who reportedly alerted “after police seized property.” For his part, Ameal didn’t recall seeing a drug dog during his traffic stop.

“The government cannot copy-and-paste its way to probable cause,” said IJ Managing Attorney Arif Panju. “Probable cause means more than simply having a large sum in cash and an after-the-fact dog alert.”

In order to get their money back, under state law, innocent owners like Ameal and Jordan have to prove that they “did not know or should not reasonably have known of the act or omission giving rise to the forfeiture.” In other words, property owners are considered guilty until proven innocent, flipping the presumption of innocence straight on its head. “It is never constitutional to require a person to prove their own innocence,” the couple asserts in their lawsuit. 

Worse, state law allows law enforcement to collect up to 100% of the proceeds from forfeited property, creating a direct financial incentive to seize. Between 2018 to 2020, Harris County law enforcement collected $15.9 million in forfeiture revenue. Over $7.5 million was spent on salaries and overtime. 

Moreover, a 2019 investigation by the Texas Tribune found that half of all cash seizures in Harris County were under $3,000, while “nearly 40% of seizures did not result in a related conviction or guilty plea.”

“Who could afford to have their life savings taken away for more than two years with no hearing and no opportunity to go before a judge?” asked Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Wesley Hottot.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office has declined to publicly comment about the case.


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