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Oh My Goat near Palestine offers unique yoga and activities

As the yoga instructor tells her class to move into downward dog, a goat hops on a student’s back to help out.

Next to them, another student pets a goat while she poses. Nearby, two baby goats zip around, exploring the pen and saying hello to class members at Oh My Goat yoga just outside of Palestine.

About 20 minutes from Palestine off Texas Highway 19, Cherry Russell has brought a Pinterest dream board to life. Oh My Goat consists of a rustic-chic barn, room to hang out and outdoor enclosures to enjoy the weather while getting Zen with the stars of the show, the goats.

There are about a dozen goats, ranging from babies to full grown, and they love attention.

A recent Saturday yoga session was followed by group painting, and the baby goats, Sugarbear and Junebug, got in on the action. Russell said the business, which opened in September, is also open to hosting other types of events and can even bring the goats to you.

“It’s just an opportunity to do something different than your daily life,” she said. “Get some stress relief chilling and meditating with the goats.”

As attendees began arriving, they hung out in the barn, met the baby goats and some chickens, and checked out merchandise made with goat’s milk.

Oh My Goat provides the yoga mats, since the goats have a tendency to nibble. Russell said people often are a bit intimidated at first, but quickly find that the goats are friendly and love to socialize.

“It’s fun, especially if you’re an animal lover,” attendee Sydney Taylor said. “It’s definitely something everyone should try.”

The goats loved Taylor as much as she did them, and she got to spend the session with sometimes three or four goats vying for her attention.

Every so often students would stop in midpose to pet a goat or laugh as the goats rolled around on the mat as if they were trying to pose as well.

The babies stayed close to instructor Stacy Bass for most of the class, helping her keep everyone’s attention.

Upcoming events include a free stress relief class on July 14 and a Date Night Goat Yoga session on July 20. The venue also offers “Goat Time” in case people want to hang out with the goats without the yoga.

“Come have fun and relax,” Russell said. “Do something crazy for the day.”

Texas police can seize money and property with little transparency. So the Texas Tribune got the data and analyzed it.

In January 2016, Houston police took $955 from a man they said was a gang member with a criminal history because they suspected he was selling painkillers found in his car during a traffic stop. When prosecutors discovered he had a valid prescription for the drugs, they dropped the possession charge.

But the man’s money still went into the coffers of the police department and the local prosecutor.

A few months later near the U.S.-Mexico border, a Webb County sheriff’s deputy pulled over a southbound car that Border Patrol agents had flagged for having hidden compartments. There was nothing in the compartments, but because deputies suspected it was tied to drug trafficking, they still seized the 2007 Nissan Altima. The driver wasn’t charged with a crime.

The seizures highlight the controversial but complicated nature of a common policing practice called civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement agencies can take and keep a person’s cash and property without charging the person with a crime. Instead, the government sues the property itself in civil court — where property owners have no right to a court-appointed lawyer — leading to oddly-named lawsuits like The State of Texas v. one 2005 Ford Mustang.

State and local law enforcement agencies bring in about $50 million per year through state asset forfeiture laws, but there is little data on how this powerful tool is used in Texas. Agencies and prosecutors must report their overall profits from seizures to the state, but law enforcement officials have successfully fought legislative proposals that would require them to release data on how much is taken in individual seizures, and how often they are tied to a criminal charge.

The Texas Tribune pored over thousands of pages of court records to shine a light on how asset forfeiture is used by law enforcement agencies in four Texas counties: Harris County, the state’s most populous and home to Houston; Smith County in East Texas; Reeves County in West Texas, which seized hundreds of thousands of dollars of suspected drug money hidden in cars being hauled by tractor-trailers; and Webb County on the border, where many seizures came from traffic stops on the southbound lanes of Interstate 35 heading toward Mexico.

The Tribune studied 560 forfeiture cases filed in 2016, resulting in the seizure of nearly $10 million and 100 vehicles (the investigation doesn’t include federally-prosecuted seizures, and the Tribune chose cases from 2016 in order to capture their final outcomes). The study included six months of cases from Harris County, and all 2016 seizures in the other counties.

The cash seizures were as small as $290 and as large as $1.2 million, and police took vehicles ranging from a 1982 Chevrolet truck to a 2011 Cadillac Escalade. They also seized property like Rolex watches, gold chains, and a 60-inch television.

The Tribune’s analysis also found:

n Half of the cash seizures were for less than $3,000. In Harris and Smith counties, more than two-thirds were under $5,000.

n About two of every five forfeiture cases started with a traffic stop.

n Many cases were connected to possession of small amounts of drugs. In Smith County, a woman’s 2003 Chevrolet Trailblazer was seized after police found half of a gram of suspected methamphetamine and a partially-smoked blunt in the car.

n In nearly 60% of the cases, people didn’t fight their seizures in court at all, resulting in judges turning over the property to local governments by default.

n Two of every 10 cases didn’t result in a related criminal charge against the property owner or possessor; in Webb County, more than half didn’t.

n And in about 40% of the cases, no one who had property taken from them was found guilty of a crime connected to the seizure.

These police seizures have been slammed by property rights advocates and critics across the political spectrum, who say civil asset forfeiture gives too much power to police and provides a strong financial incentive for them to take money and valuables. But it’s also fiercely defended by police and prosecutors, who argue the practice is a necessary tool to combat criminal organizations like drug cartels by hitting them where it hurts — in their profits.

Taking property without a criminal conviction is a violation of the owners’ civil liberties, said Arif Panju, an attorney with the libertarian Institute for Justice.

“There is a principle of being innocent until proven guilty, and forfeiture just takes that and flips it on its head,” he said. “That raises all sorts of constitutional problems.”

In February, the group won a U.S. Supreme Court case that limits forfeitures in state cases where the value of what is seized outweighs the seriousness of the connected crime.

And more and more states, like Michigan and Arkansas, have recently adopted legislation to require a criminal conviction for most forfeitures. Both the Democratic and Republican party platforms in Texas last year called for law enforcement to secure a criminal conviction in order to keep seized assets.

But law enforcement has stymied such proposals at the Texas Capitol for years, arguing that criminal cases can be dismissed for reasons that have nothing to do with guilt — like a defendant agreeing to plead guilty in one case if prosecutors drop another one. Prosecutors have also told lawmakers that it’s not always possible — or in the interest of justice — to file criminal charges in forfeitures.

They point to cases like those in Reeves County — where they say seized cash is clearly tied to criminal activity but the truck drivers are unknowingly transporting it.

“Civil asset forfeiture is a necessity for us on these drug corridors for us to be able to operate,” Jackson County Sheriff A.J. Louderback, speaking on behalf of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, said at the state’s sole legislative hearing on changing forfeiture laws this year. “It’s the single most effective tool that we have to fight the cartels in the state of Texas.”

Opponents counter that in such cases, there are other legal mechanisms for police to seize and keep the cash since the drivers are not claiming it. Seventeen states now require criminal convictions in most forfeiture cases, they argue, and Texas could do the same.

“We hear the police and prosecutors say that these are vital tools, yet states across the country are figuring out a way to both obviously combat crime and criminal activity and respect the property rights, and the civil liberties and the due process rights of citizens,” Chris Harris, a data and policy analyst with the advocacy group Just Liberty, said at the legislative hearing in April.

Critics also said that the low dollar amount of most seizures the Tribune reviewed undercuts a standard law enforcement argument: Forfeiture is mainly used to target high-level criminal organizations.

“One of the things that I think that the district attorney’s office would have people think is that all of these cases involve big drug kingpins,” said Jennifer Gaut, a lawyer who represented several people in the Tribune’s sample and now works for the Harris County Public Defender’s Office. “The majority of cases are small dollar amounts and that’s … not the message they try to convey.”

But Angela Beavers, the lead civil forfeiture prosecutor for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said smaller seizures are common when police bust street dealers, who are an integral cog in drug trafficking organizations.

“Why would we allow the street level dealers to profit from their crimes? These are the dealers that ruin communities and families,” she said in an email.

In the face of a growing effort to change Texas forfeiture laws, police and prosecutors have pointed to the positive effects seized money can have in their communities, such as providing body armor for police and buying drugs that can reverse overdoses.

“We understand that asset forfeiture is getting a negative light, but there are very good things that come from (it),” said Smith County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Wilson, who prosecutes civil forfeiture cases. “You don’t want drug dealers profiting and continuing to use these means to sell illicit drugs.”

Low-dollar seizures in tough-on-crime Smith County almost always led to convictions

In the piney woods of East Texas, Smith County law enforcement almost never seize property without filing criminal charges — and the tone is set by the district attorney’s office.

Wilson, the Smith County prosecutor who leads the forfeiture division, said his office’s policy is to only seize property if there’s a criminal charge. He said he’s had officers call him after pulling someone over with $16,000 in cash, and he asked them: “Well, how is that illegal?”

The Tribune reviewed all 35 state seizure cases in Smith County from 2016, and only two of them did not coincide with a criminal charge. In one case, Wilson said a co-defendant was charged with drug possession, and in the second, the county declined to pursue criminal charges for evading arrest and also dismissed the related seizure of a motorcycle, returning it to a man who police said didn’t pull over for miles after speeding.

But Smith County also differed from the other counties by bringing in the lowest dollar amount per seizure. Only two cases brought in more than $10,000; more than half of cash seizures resulted in less than $1,500.

In July 2016, police found Zowie Anderson and two others in her car at a park in Overton, a small town about 20 miles east of Tyler. According to the police report, officers had arrested Anderson before in low-level drug possession cases, and they brought a police dog to sniff for drugs. When the dog indicated there could be drugs in the vehicle, they searched it and found one partially-smoked blunt and half of a gram of suspected methamphetamine.

The officers arrested Anderson for drug possession, and she ultimately got 5 years of probation. Overton police also seized her 2003 Chevy Trailblazer to either sell at auction or keep for police use. Anderson could not be reached for comment.

Four months earlier, police in Whitehouse, a town south of Tyler, seized $1,359 from Otha Ray Kincade after pulling him over for speeding. At the time, Kincade was on parole after serving less than 3 years of an 8-year prison sentence for a low-level possession charge, according to a prison spokesperson. A search of his pickup truck found open beer cans, a handful of prescription painkillers, less than two grams of marijuana and less than one gram of cocaine.

He was charged with drug possession, but two days after the seizure, he arrived at the police department with copies of checks he told police were from an automotive paint company where he worked. He told them some of the cash was his pay and some was company money to buy supplies while his boss was out of town.

A manager at the paint store confirmed to the Tribune that Kincade did work for a sister company, and the money he had on him during his arrest was from the company.

Kincade pleaded with officers to return it, according to the report, telling them the drugs were only for personal use and that some of the money was to pay child support, according to a police report.

An officer told him he couldn’t get his money back because he was found with cocaine, and added that Kincade could have paid child support with the money he used to buy the drugs.

“I know for a fact it was because I was a black man, simply,” Kincade told the Tribune in a letter from prison. “I couldn’t pay my child support, nor my parole fees.”

But Kincade did not fight the forfeiture in court, and he was convicted and sentenced to 2 years in prison, plus nearly 3 years from his earlier sentence because his parole was revoked.

Civil forfeiture opponents, like Panju at the Institute for Justice, have argued that police in Texas too often pursue relatively small “petty cash” seizures, targeting low-income people who aren’t likely to challenge the seizure.

Wilson said that in seizures that appear on paper to only be related to a small amount of drugs, there is always more information than what is in the court records. Police look at criminal history and previous law enforcement encounters, and he said it’s not uncommon for people who are facing forfeiture to provide false documents.

“Each officer when they approach an individual, they approach everything. So it may appear on the surface just to be a personal use amount, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s not other factors that go into play,” he said.

Edgar Walters and Neena Satija helped with data gathering, with Walters contributing editing.

This story had been edited for length and was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.