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:
— Half of the cash seizures were for less than $3,000. In Harris and Smith counties, more than two-thirds were under $5,000.
— About two of every five forfeiture cases started with a traffic stop.
— 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.
— 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.
— 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.
— 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.”
In Harris County, law enforcement seized cash and property nearly 18 times per week
In February 2016, Houston police found more than $1.2 million hidden in a truck loaded onto a tractor-trailer they stopped on Interstate 10. When the driver claimed to have no knowledge of the cash, police seized the suspected drug money and let the driver go without charges.
Another major seizure stemmed from a west Houston drug bust and raked in more than $560,000 — one of several high-dollar seizures that came at the end of long investigations and resulted in criminal convictions.
Those were among the 463 seizures in the first six months of 2016 that took in $8 million in cash and almost 70 vehicles in Harris County — home to 4.7 million people — the Tribune’s investigation found.
Police also regularly seized significant amounts of cash from people while surveilling bus terminals in east Houston and stopping what they described in their reports as suspicious or nervous-looking Hispanic people. Cash amounts ranging from $12,000 to $300,000 were seized from 17 people who were searched after getting off buses. Police charged most of them with money laundering, but released two without charges after seizing their money.
Beavers, the Harris County prosecutor, said the officers who watch the bus stations are part of a special drug task force and have received extensive training on how to spot money couriers, known as mules, who transport money to drug cartels.
“The officers have a visible presence in the stations and when they recognize someone that is exhibiting behaviors that are not usual for the normal traveling public, they will identify themselves and have a consensual conversation with the individual to determine if they are transporting illegal drugs or drug money,” Beavers told the Tribune in a written statement.
But for every six-figure seizure, the county’s law enforcement agencies had nearly two dozen smaller cash cases: half resulted in less than $3,000 seized; more than three-quarters brought in less than $10,000.
In these cases, police took cash from people like Ovide Ned, whose car was searched after a traffic stop in north Houston, according to court records. After finding a bottle of prescription painkillers and $955 in Ned’s pocket and wallet, police charged the 40-year-old with drug possession and took the cash. And though police dropped the criminal charge after Ned produced a valid prescription for the drugs, the county kept the money.
Houston police said in their seizure report they believed the cash was drug money because Ned was a known gang member with a long criminal background, and they found three boxes of plastic sandwich bags in his trunk that they associated with drug dealing. Beavers told the Tribune that Ned “was obviously selling the pills,” adding that opioid dealers commonly obtain multiple prescriptions from pain clinics.
“All they have to do to make the criminal case go away is to produce one of these prescriptions so that the possession is not illegal,” she said. “It does not mean the money seized is not contraband.”
Ned didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
Gaut, the Houston defense attorney, said these low-dollar cases almost always result in law enforcement getting the money without a fight.
“In a way I think it actually benefits police to seize these smaller dollar amounts because … people can’t find [legal] representation,” she said. “So if it’s $4,000, even if we get it all back, I’m going to get like $1,000 for maybe 30 hours of work.”
Harris County prosecutors have been at the forefront of law enforcement’s fight against proposed laws to restrict civil asset forfeiture in recent years. Beavers frequently travels to the Texas Capitol to testify in support of asset forfeiture.
At the most recent legislative hearing in April, as lawmakers considered a proposal to require convictions for the crime that prompted a seizure, Beavers said criminal charges were filed in all but 5% of Harris County seizure cases in 2018. State Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat who has repeatedly filed legislation to require convictions for forfeiture, didn’t buy it — he thought the percentage was much higher based on his own experience working as an attorney on such cases.
“Ma’am, I’m going to tell you as a practicing lawyer in Harris County, I don’t think you’re being honest with this committee,” he said.
“Well, we have the stats,” she countered. Beavers later provided data from 2018 that indicated 6% of seizures did not have an accompanying criminal case.
Examining Harris County court documents for cases filed in the first six months of 2016, the Tribune found that 15% did not include criminal charges connected to the stated reason for the seizure — such as a drug crime. Nearly 40% of seizures did not result in a related conviction or guilty plea.
Harris County data provided to the Tribune for the same period indicated 11% of seizure cases didn’t include criminal charges.
Beavers said the discrepancy can be explained by prosecutors choosing to pursue more serious charges in some seizure cases, instead of charging a suspect with the offense that prompted the seizure.
“When a drug dealer is a felon and has a gun but has also made his money selling drugs and is left with a misdemeanor amount of drugs, we will not charge him with both the felony and the misdemeanor,” Beavers told the Tribune.
Plus, she argued, it’s still connected to the seizure, despite not being directly related to the initial charge: “Having and carrying guns is not unrelated to the business of drug dealing.”
On the U.S.-Mexico border, most seizures in Webb County weren’t connected to a criminal charge
Webb County law enforcement brought in about $675,000 in 2016 by keeping their eyes on the freeway headed into Mexico, accounting for more than 80% of their cash seizures for the year.
They made nearly 60 seizures overall, with less than half of those cases resulting in a criminal charge and about 30% ending in criminal convictions or guilty pleas so far. The Webb County district attorney declined to comment for this article.
Most of those seizures started with traffic stops, many of which occurred within a 15-mile stretch of Interstate 35 heading south toward Mexico. The federal government has declared the region a “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area,” with drugs moving north into Texas and money headed south to Mexican cartels.
But Laredo’s border crossing is also a magnet for Mexican shoppers who pour money into South Texas outlet malls and stores.
“I-35 is basically your main artery into the city from the rest of North America,” said Joe Baeza, a spokesperson for the Laredo Police Department. “We’re the beginning of the yellow brick road here.”
He said a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint inspects vehicles heading north into Texas, and local cops often keep an eye out for drug proceeds traveling south. Webb County agencies made two seizures — a 2012 Dodge Ram and a 2008 BMW 5-series — from northbound stops after finding drugs in both vehicles, compared with 16 cash seizures from southbound lanes.
When Salvador Morales Ortiz was stopped near mile marker 14 heading toward Mexico in July 2016, law enforcement was already familiar with his car — Border Patrol agents had flagged the 2007 Nissan Altima with Mexican license plates when it crossed into the U.S. the day before for having added-on — but empty — compartments.
A Webb County sheriff’s deputy then pulled him over as he headed south, saying the GPS device on his front windshield obstructed his view, and searched the car.
“Unfortunately, both compartments were found to be empty,” the deputy wrote in an affidavit.
They released Morales Ortiz, but seized the car.
Morales Ortiz, who had a Mexican home address, was never charged with a crime and could not be reached for comment.
Baeza said that while it is not illegal for a vehicle to have special compartments, “it is highly suspect.”
“You can do anything to your car, you can put some longhorns on it and nobody is going to tell you much,” Baeza said. “But when you portion out a bed of a pickup truck and it is just sufficient enough to hide narcotics or money in it, the average car owner is not going to do those customizations to a vehicle.”
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.
In rural Reeves County, one sheriff’s captain hauls in big bucks
Two major interstates cut through Reeves County in rural West Texas, and on one four-mile stretch of westbound Interstate 20, Capt. Kevin Roberts of the Reeves County Sheriff’s Office was watching for car carriers.
Roberts had figured out that criminals had begun stashing cash in vehicles being transported through the oil-well-studded plains of his county, and he looked for anything suspicious when he encountered a truck pulling a load of vehicles — like a bad registration or a car that had been repeatedly shipped back and forth across the country — then searched the cars.
Four times in 2016, he hit the jackpot.
Twice, Roberts questioned drivers at the Flying J truck stop in Pecos. Two other times, he pulled over car carriers on westbound I-20.
Willing drivers provided cargo records, and Roberts found money hidden in vehicles — between $55,980 and $377,501 each time.
The cases brought in four vehicles and a total of $792,601, amounting to more than a quarter of the sheriff’s budget for the year, and totalling more than six times the money allocated for the local district attorney, who also serves nearby Ward and Loving counties. The two departments split seizure proceeds, with two-thirds going to the sheriff’s department.
Roberts’ seizures made real a hypothetical that prosecutors often use to argue against a requirement for criminal convictions in forfeiture cases — none of the drivers were charged with a crime after convincing Roberts they didn’t know about the cash in the vehicles.
In court records, Roberts — who could not be reached for comment through the sheriff’s office — detailed how he unsuccessfully tried to reach the shippers or receivers of the vehicles in each case, calling phone numbers and looking up addresses.
He suspected that most had given fake names and contact information to the truck drivers, leaving the money untraceable.
Edgar Walters and Neena Satija helped with data gathering, with Walters contributing editing. Graphics by Darla Cameron.
This story 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.