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Cash Is Not a Crime: IJ Takes on Houston’s Civil Forfeiture Machine

Ameal Woods was on his way to Houston chasing a dream. A truck driver for many years, Ameal was ready to start his own business and become a truck owner. With help from his wife, Jordan Davis, he’d saved $40,000 cash and was traveling to buy a used tractor-trailer. 

But Ameal’s hopes were dashed when Harris County police seized his money on the side of I-10. Officers pulled him over for allegedly following a tractor-trailer too closely—something that, as a truck driver himself, Ameal knows he did not do. When officers found that he was traveling with cash, however, their focus shifted to the money and concerns about following distance evaporated. Ultimately, they let Ameal go without so much as a warning—and with only a receipt reading “currency seizure” in the place of his and Jordan’s life savings.  

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What Ameal did was legal: He drove with cash. What the police did was illegal: They took his cash without probable cause.

Using Texas’ civil forfeiture law, prosecutors now want to keep Ameal and Jordan’s money without charging either of them with a crime. IJ is fighting back to defend Ameal and Jordan and dismantle Houston’s civil forfeiture machine. 

Texas’ most populous city has set up perhaps the worst forfeiture system anywhere in the nation. Police seize property without probable cause. After the fact, they have a drug dog alert on the property. Prosecutors then file a civil lawsuit against the property (not its owner) using cut-and-paste allegations. IJ analyzed 113 Houston forfeiture cases, and each one repeated the same lines to support the forfeitures, usually including the same language word for word. 

Making matters worse, police and prosecutors in Texas use the money from civil forfeiture to pay their own salaries. With this profit incentive at its heart, it is clear that Houston’s civil forfeiture machine is designed to do one thing: make money for the police and prosecutors who control it. 

In addition to fighting for Ameal and Jordan, IJ is bringing our case as a class action lawsuit to provide immediate relief to the hundreds of people who have fallen victim to these outrageous practices. Our goal is to take this case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, win a decisive victory affirming the right to travel with cash, and dismantle Houston’s unconstitutional forfeiture scheme once and for all.

Wesley Hottot is an IJ senior attorney. 

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