Houston Prosecutors Profit Millions From Cash Illegally Seized
by Jacob Barrett
Apparently “everything in Texas isbigger,” including the corruption and dirty tactics used by police and prosecutors to profit off cases compromised by police.
In 2019, the Houston Police Department was forced to dismiss dozens of criminal cases after it came to light they were tainted by Gerald Goines, a cop with a long history of misconduct who lied to obtain a warrant. Goines’ lies resulted in the death of Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas.
Cops like Goines used fraudulently obtained warrants to make arrests and seize cash and property from the citizens they arrested. However, the dropped charges did not result in cash and property being returned to the wrongly arrested. Due to the broad authority granted to prosecutors under civil forfeiture laws, which allow law enforcement authorities to use confiscated funds to pad their budgets and give officers bonus pay, they are unwilling to release their grip on the property, even ill-gotten cash and property. According to reports published by The Houston Chronicle, prosecutors in Harris County refused to return illegally seized property even when cops like Goines were exposed.
Reports by the Chronicle exposed dozens of cases over a five-year period in which more than $75,000 in cash and cars were confiscated by cops later found to have obtained warrants based on false information. Nevertheless, Harris County kept it all. In one case, Goines and his partner confiscated $11,000 from Andrew Hebert during a raid on a suspected drug house. Hebert never got his money back even after charges were dropped against him.
A coworker of Goines, Steven Bryant, and other officers arrested Christopher White, claiming he was dealing crack cocaine from a barber shop. They confiscated $2,465. The charges were dropped, but true to form, Harris County still kept the cash.
Time after time Goines and his colleagues arrested citizens, charges were dropped, but the County refused to return the seized property. Civil forfeiture laws in Texas are so lax police and prosecutors need nothing more than “probable cause” that criminal activity is connected to the property. The government is not even required to bring charges or convict to keep the property.
To get the property back, citizens must challenge the seizure in civil court via a notoriously difficult and expensive legal action. This court process can be lengthy and often cost more than the property seized, which is precisely the calculus the county counts on in retaining innocent people’s property. It is only when an asset forfeiture victim can afford to hire an attorney (and the cost of doing so is justified by the value of the property at issue) does he or she get the property back.
Sometimes, prosecutors quietly give property back but only when they are facing greater liability. In 2021, Otis Mallet had his conviction overturned after it was revealed Goines invented a crack cocaine purchase to arrest Mallet and confiscate $1,668 in cash. Prosecutors returned his money after Mallet had served more than two years in prison.
In 2016, the Texas Supreme Court gave prosecutors and cops the incentive they needed to keep illegally seized funds when it found the rule barring admission of illegally obtained evidence does not apply to civil forfeiture laws. That meant drugs found as a result of an unconstitutional search or arrest by dirty cops like Goines could still be used in the civil seizure proceedings as justification to keep the property. Critics have argued if the officers were dirty enough to obtain false warrants, they were dirty enough to plant the drugs to justify the arrest, and the property never should have been taken.
In a lawsuit filed by the Institute of Justice (“IOJ”) on August 30, 2021, the complaint alleges law enforcement authorities in Harris County used a boiler plate affidavit by the same officer in 92 out of 113 cases in which the officer claimed a drug dog alerted to the “odor of cocaine” on money.
According to the IOJ, more than 60 percent of property owners give up on the forfeiture process. Consequently, Harris County prosecutors profited $7.7 million between 2018 and 2020. The IOJ says “Harris County is far more likely to spend that money on the overtime payments that create this perverse incentive in the first place. Over a third of Harris County’s forfeiture revenue (36 percent) goes to officer overtime, compared to just 7 percent for Texas jurisdictions as a whole.”
The IOJ believes that absent reform in Texas, prosecutors and police will continue to ignore the collateral consequences of blatantly dirty cops like Goines and his colleagues and continue to keep the property they seized, even property that’s seized as a result of official misconduct.
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