While Ameal Woods was traveling to Houston from Natchez, Mississippi, on the morning of May 14, 2019, he was pulled over by Harris County, Texas, deputies for what they claimed was following a box truck too closely in his rental car.
No ticket or charge was issued. No warning was given. However, deputies did ask to search his car. Woods permitted the search, although no cause or warranted reason was given.
When deputies opened his trunk, they found $41,680 in vacuum-sealed packages. They questioned Woods and took the cash without making an arrest or filing charges.
Harris County authorities would claim the money was connected to drugs. Woods said part of it was from his own earnings as a self-employed truck driver, horse trainer, and part-time construction worker. Some of the cash was lent to him by his partner and mother of his two children Jordan Davis, as well as his niece. All of it was going to be used for the express purpose of purchasing a tractor-trailer in Houston to expand the trucking business he owns in Natchez with his brother.
A Harris County jury has just ruled against returning that money to Woods.
The cash seizure is part of a process called civil asset forfeiture. In Texas, the civil forfeiture law allows police and prosecutors to take money they claim they suspect of being used in or acquired through illegal activities. Critics say law enforcement can abuse this method by using the power of Texas’ civil courts to permanently keep the cash in their own budgets or pad their salaries. Also, the practice gives the original owners a hard time proving their innocence. They can end up spending months or years fighting in court to win back their own property.
Woods said he and his brother had saved and borrowed that money to purchase another tractor-trailer to grow their company. They only owned and shared one truck and were eager to purchase another after weeks of researching where to find ads for used trucking equipment. Cash is often used when buying used trucks and Woods found some promising offers near Houston priced from $25,000 to $35,000.
After the money was seized, Woods and Davis waited for more than two years to hear from Harris County on its status and if it would remain in the state’s custody. No word came.
So, in 2021, the couple filed a class-action lawsuit aimed at ending the practice of seizing cash under thin pretexts when no charges are filed against the owner while also arguing the unconstitutionality of the use of civil forfeiture.
Attorneys from the Libertarian Institute for Justice public interest law firm came to Woods’ defense and vouched that the money was indeed his and was also legitimate.
When the deputies stopped Woods, he told them he was carrying a large amount of cash, according to a complaint Woods filed, and added that the packages the deputies found contained cash, not drugs.
During the civil trial that started on May 16 of this year, the deputies claimed that the money came from drug trafficking, even though Woods was never cited, arrested, or charged. The money wasn’t counted at the scene, and a K-9 wasn’t present to inspect the cash. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office claims that a drug-sniffing dog later detected drug residue on the money.
One deputy that conducted the stop on Woods testified that Woods appeared “nervous” when he asked to search the car, including nervously laughing, pulling on his shirt, trying to lead a conversation, and voluntarily explaining he had a commercial driver’s license.
The deputy conducting the search said, “I think this money is connected to drugs” and took the money, as Woods recounted in his filed complaint.
Also, unbeknownst to Woods or Davis, prosecutors filed a civil-forfeiture complaint against the cash less than a month after it was seized in 2019. That petition was written by a deputy who wasn’t at the scene when the money was taken, according to the lawsuit. Adding insult to injury, the couple didn’t hear about that petition until August 2021 after waiting for word from Harris County for years.
The Institute for Justice identified 113 other instances where these civil-forfeiture petitions were “written by an officer who was not at the time and place of seizure.”
Texas law cites that innocent cash owners who have their money seized 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 plain terms, both Woods and Davis would have had to prove their innocence when the state essentially declared them guilty.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office hailed last week’s verdict, saying in a May 26 statement that Woods’ niece testified she did not lend him any of the cash that was seized. Therefore, Woods committed perjury when stating under oath that she did.
“Evidence showed that Ameal Woods had been paid to transport the money to Houston to purchase illegal narcotics and then transport the drugs back to Mississippi, where they could be sold for a profit of more than $70,000,” the district attorney’s office’s statement said.
The county prosecutors described the jury’s decision not to return Woods’ money as a validation of their claim he was a drug trafficker.
“The jury has spoken. Do not come to Houston intending to profit from illegal narcotics trafficking,” Asset Forfeiture Division chief prosecutor Angela Beavers summed up in the statement.
The Institute for Justice has represented people in numerous cases similar to this one.
In March, the state of Arizona returned $39,500 to North Carolina trucker Jerry Johnson after it was seized in 2020 at the Phoenix, Arizona airport. Johnson flew to Phoenix to visit an auction house to buy a third semi-truck for his small trucking business. He brought the cash he saved up and borrowed from relatives.
Phoenix detectives stopped Johnson at baggage claim, searched his luggage, questioned him, and took the cash without arresting him or charging him with a crime. He finally received his money back 31 months later after a lengthy court process. The state was also ordered to pay him 9 percent interest.
In 2021, the Institute of Justice also aided New Orleans grandfather Kermit Warren in recovering nearly $30,000 that was seized the previous year by the DEA at the airport in Columbus, Ohio. Warren was traveling home after inspecting a tow truck he considered buying for his scrapping business and had his life savings seized at the airport. Officials claimed it was also connected to drugs. The federal government agreed to dismiss its civil forfeiture case against him.