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'LEGAL THEFT': Texas police seized man's life savings. Now the state is putting his cash on trial

Ameal Woods set off for Houston in May 2019 to buy a second tractor-trailer and expand his trucking business. His family had saved more than $40,000 to make the dream a reality, but as Woods drove through Harris County, red and blue lights flashed behind him.

A sheriff’s deputy accused Woods of following a truck too closely. The deputy didn’t give him a ticket, but he did take all of Woods’ cash.

This week, the state of Texas is heading to court to make sure Woods never gets his life savings back.

Ameal Woods stands in front of semi-truck

A sheriff’s deputy seized Ameal Woods’ and his partner’s life savings. They were never charged with a crime, but the state of Texas is trying to prove that the cash Woods says he was going to use to expand his trucking business was connected to illicit activities. (Courtesy of Institute for Justice)

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“Any time you have a financial incentive for law enforcement to take money, it’s going to create that incentive for them to do so, whether there’s crime or not,” criminal defense attorney Joseph Tully told Fox News.

Tully is not involved with Woods’ case, but he weighed in on the legal implications.

A deputy seized Woods’ money in a process known as civil asset forfeiture. It’s meant to punish and deter criminal activity by depriving criminals of property that is used in or acquired through illegal activities. But critics say it’s often abused by police and prosecutors and treats anyone who carries a large amount of cash as guilty.

The deputy said Woods’ cash was connected to drugs, but he was never ticketed, cited or arrested for a crime, argue lawyers for the nonprofit Institute for Justice, which is representing the Mississippi native.

The trial starts Monday in Harris County – four years and one day after the seizure – in State of Texas v. Approximately $41,680.00. 

HOW TEXAS IS PUTTING MAN’S LIFE SAVINGS ON TRIAL:

‘Legal theft’: How Texas is putting man’s life savings on trial Video

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Under civil asset forfeiture, the seized cash is on trial, no criminal conviction is required. The government just has to prove that the property was linked to criminal activity, Tully said.

“I think it is fair to call this practice legal theft,” he said, adding that the courts have means of seizing money from those convicted of crimes, such as requiring them to pay restitution to victims.

The state argues there was probable cause to seize the cash and that the money was either gained from committing a crime or intended to be used to commit a crime, such as drug dealing or money laundering.

The deputy who stopped Woods wrote in court documents that Woods “was acting overly nervous and uncomfortable and displaying signs of stress such as labored breathing” during the stop, did not state the exact amount of money he was carrying when asked, and had the money stored in two duct-taped bundles.

“I was starting to believe that Woods was involved in criminal activity, particularly money laundering,” the deputy wrote at one point, later adding that Woods could be “involved in the transport of money connected to drug trafficking.”

The deputy said he left Woods with a case number and phone number to call if he wanted to try to claim the money.

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The Institute for Justice says Woods’ case isn’t unique and that police in Texas’ most populous county regularly ask drivers if they have cash in their cars. The police department gets to keep whatever money its officers seize.

“In the Harris County case, it went directly to the budgets of the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office,” Tully said. “So, you have prosecutors and you have law enforcement who both personally profit from taking this money.”

At least 113 civil forfeiture petitions filed by county prosecutors since 2016 are “based on a form affidavit written by an officer who was not present at the time and place of seizure,” the nonprofit law firm wrote in a court filing.

“Policing for profit is definitely a problem,” Tully said. “We all know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Jordan Davis and Ameal Woods stand outside in Mississippi

Ameal Woods and Jordan Davis raise their two daughters in Mississippi. Davis started working overtime to help Woods achieve his goal of expanding the trucking business that he runs with his brother. But their money was seized four years ago by a Harris County deputy. (Courtesy of Institute for Justice)

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Tully added that the Institute for Justice has successfully challenged civil forfeiture cases in other jurisdictions. The nonprofit law firm helped a New Orleans grandfather reclaim about $28,000 seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

A lawyer representing the state did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

To hear more about the case, click here.

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