Mississippi trucker Ameal Woods focused on business when he visited Texas in 2019. He did not block an international bridge, blare his horn at night, or defy evacuation orders like the Freedom Convoy participants in Canada, who spent most of February protesting COVID-19 mandates.
Woods did nothing to challenge police authority. Yet he lost his life savings anyway during a traffic stop near Houston—without ever being arrested, charged, or cited.
His ordeal provides a timely reminder for U.S. property owners following the brief declaration of emergency powers north of the border. U.S. agencies do not need an emergency to seize and permanently keep assets. They do it routinely with a tool called civil forfeiture.
The process allows the government to take cash, cars, and other valuables without a criminal conviction. Law enforcement agencies do not even need to file charges, identify a suspect or develop a theory about a specific crime. To seize property, police need only have probable cause to believe it is connected to criminal activity. Most forfeiture cases end there and never go to court. For the few that do, all the government must do is link property to wrongdoing using civil standards of proof that fall far below reasonable doubt.
Once law enforcement agencies win their cases, lawmakers in many jurisdictions allow them to keep up to 100 percent of the proceeds for themselves—creating a financial conflict of interest. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the Emergencies Act a “measure of last resort” to end blockades. But civil forfeiture is a measure of first resort for many U.S. agencies, including the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Texas.
Woods learned the hard way. He traveled in a rental car with cash to shop for a tractor unit and trailer for his business, and he complied when a Harris County deputy pulled him over and asked him to get out of his vehicle. Following a search, the officer seized $42,300, which the government is now seeking to keep through civil forfeiture.
Rather than accept the violation of his rights, Woods fought back with a class-action lawsuit. The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that opposes civil forfeiture, represents him.
Sadly, the case is not an isolated incident in the United States. Canadian officials have proposed selling the vehicles seized in Ottawa and using the proceeds to help recoup enforcement costs. But the auction revenue would not come close to matching the scale of U.S. forfeiture. “Policing for Profit,” a 2020 report from the Institute for Justice, finds the process produced at least $68.8 billion for U.S. agencies from 2000 to 2019.
That’s more than $9.4 million per day, every day, for 20 years.
The moneymaking scheme typically starts with traffic enforcement. Agencies also target travelers at airports, train stations, bus terminals, and border checkpoints. But other types of seizures occur. Federal officers took $29,500 directly from the bank account of Maryland dairy farmer Randy Sowers. Officers also combed through the bank account of David and Larry Vocatura, co-owners of a family bakery in Connecticut, and helped themselves to $68,000.
More recently, FBI agents raided U.S. Private Vaults in Beverly Hills, Calif., and broke open hundreds of private security boxes. Los Angeles residents Paul and Jennifer Snitko lost many prized possessions.
None of these people was ever arrested or charged with wrongdoing, and all eventually recovered their assets. But not until after they filed lawsuits and wasted countless hours fighting the government.
Many targets of civil forfeiture do not even try. Single mother Stephanie Wilson simply abandoned her car when the Detroit Police Department took it in 2019. She had done nothing wrong, but the cost of defending herself outweighed the value of her vehicle. So walking away made financial sense.
Police and prosecutors rely on upside-down economics. The median cash forfeiture is just $1,276 across 21 states with available data. But hiring an attorney to fight forfeiture costs at least $3,000. And because proceedings are civil rather than criminal, property owners must pay for their own defense. Predictably, more than three-quarters of all forfeiture cases go uncontested.
Political opponents have taken sides in Canada about the Freedom Convoy, but ending civil forfeiture in the United States should be a nonpartisan issue. Governments may have good reasons to confiscate property, but not without due process. Honk if you agree.