Due Processless Civil Asset Forfeitures in Houston, Texas
by Ed Lyon
Houston, Harris County, Texas, is the fourth largest city in the nation, as well as the largest city in Texas. Preceding the Blue Wave of female reformist judges elected in 2018 [See: CLN, April 2019, p.38], Democrat Kim Ogg soundly defeated the incumbent Republican by a 100,000-vote landslide victory to become Harris County’s first female district attorney-elect in 2016.
Under Ogg’s active reform-minded oversight, minor marijuana busts by cops plummeted, and working with the 2018 slate of newly elected female judges, a viable, successful system of bail reform was ideated and instituted. Also, only the worst of the worst murders in Harris County saw Ogg approve her prosecutors to seek the death penalty, a major turnaround for a city commonly known as the “Capital of Capital Punishment.” [See: PLN, November 2018, p.15.] However, the issue of due processless civil asset forfeitures (“CAF”) does not seem to be on Ogg’s reform agenda at all.
Initially, CAF was designed and intended as a way to divest evil doers of their ill-gotten gains associated with their criminal activities. Ideally then, a CAF would be an adjunct to a criminal proceeding where the divestee had already been proven guilty of criminal offenses associated with the seized assets. But that’s not how CAF operates in the real world.
When police and prosecutors began to realize the huge financial benefits to their respective interests gained from CAF, the seizures increased as any initial due process protections decreased. No longer do police departments have to present their purported need for surplus military hardware to town, city, and county councils because their budgets do not cover those expenditures — all they need to do is step up their seizures of innocent citizens’ assets, even though these forfeitures have not been shown to be helpful in fighting crime. [See: CLN, January 2020, p.41.] The same principle applies to overtime wages not approved or provided for by budgetary restraints for police as well as prosecutors.
Former Houston cop Gerald Goines, who routinely lied about drug transactions to obtain search and arrest warrants, victimized dwellings at 2807 and 2811 Nettleton street on October 27, 2016. The first visit cost Frederick Jeffery a 25-year prison sentence for five grams of methamphetamine based on false testimony. The second cost Andre Thomas $3,000 via CAF, even though Thomas was never detained or charged with a crime.
After the police murder of a Houston couple in 2019 resulting from Goines’ lies, Ogg began reviewing Goines’ past records of arrests and convictions, one of which culminated in a drug conviction for the late George Floyd.
Ogg publicly decried Jeffery’s case for its lack of due process, which resulted in a wrongful conviction and a 25-year prison sentence. She has not said a word about the due processless seizure of $3,000 from Thomas that was stolen by Goines, of which only $2,700 was reported.
In May 2019, Ameal Woods and Jordan Davis were stopped on a pretextual traffic violation by Harris County Sheriff’s deputies. They stole Woods’ life savings of $22,800 and $19,500 he had borrowed to buy a semi-tractor rig for his business. Ogg initiated a CAF proceeding but never notified Woods. The Institute For Justice (“IFJ”) has filed suit on Woods’ and 118 other CAF victims’ behalf over these due processless CAF proceedings.
The IFJ’s research has uncovered a staggering $7.7 million added to Ogg’s budget between 2018 and 2020 from CAF, with a phenomenal $15.9 million going to various Harris County law enforcement agencies and “more than $7.5 million of that money was used to pay salaries and overtime to police officers — the same officers who make decisions about whether to seize property.”
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