Mississippi driver Ameal Woods knew his day was ruined when he saw red lights flashing in his rearview mirror on westbound Interstate 10 near Houston in 2019. But the next hour went worse than he imagined.
Woods had done nothing criminal. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office sergeant who made the traffic stop merely accused him of driving too closely behind a tractor-trailer—a civil violation that did not result in a citation.
Yet Woods was not free to go.
The sergeant had questions, mostly about cash. Once Woods mentioned the large amount of currency in the trunk of his car, the sergeant got aggressive. He ordered Woods to exit his vehicle and sit in the police cruiser.
Woods had no choice but to comply. Disobeying commands during a law enforcement encounter can lead to arrest or worse.
Even showing disrespect or insufficient deference to police authority—informally called “contempt of cop”—can cause problems, especially for a Black man hundreds of miles from home.
So Woods tried appeasement as a survival strategy. He followed instructions, answered questions, and agreed when the sergeant asked for permission to look inside Woods’ car.
The search produced no drugs or contraband of any type, and the sergeant made no arrest. Yet Woods lost his life savings when the sergeant popped the trunk and found $42,000 wrapped in two bundles, exactly where Woods told the sergeant the money was stored.
The cash, which included loans to help Woods buy a tractor-trailer for his trucking business, was not illegal. People can carry as much money as they want across state lines, and large cash transactions are common among used truck dealers.
Unfortunately, innocence did not protect Woods. Neither did compliance.
Using a law enforcement procedure called civil forfeiture, Harris County seized the money and is attempting to keep it permanently. If police and prosecutors succeed, Texas law will let them keep 100 percent of the proceeds for themselves without ever filing criminal charges against anyone.
Rather than accept the violation of his rights, Woods is fighting back with representation from the Institute for Justice, our public interest law firm.
Justifying Civil Forfeiture
In addition to challenging the perverse financial incentives built into civil forfeiture, the class action lawsuit highlights problems with police notions of “consent”—an important legal question when officers take property using civil forfeiture.
Harris County officials claim that Woods waived his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, releasing the sergeant from his obligation to show probable cause before opening the trunk.
Officers gladly accept the permission to snoop, yet nothing about the traffic stop was consensual. The sergeant carried a badge and gun, and used intimidation tactics.
Courts would describe the behavior as coercion in any other context. In sexual misconduct cases, for example, judges recognize that managers have a power advantage over employees, and teachers over students.
Likewise, power imbalances can nullify business contracts and financial transactions. Bullying, by definition, involves unequal power dynamics. True consent must be voluntary, which means all parties have negotiation leverage.
Woods had nothing close to that level of control on the side of Interstate 10. Power imbalances are even more pronounced at airports, border checkpoints and other high-security locations.
An Airport Stop
Jerry Johnson, an Institute for Justice client from North Carolina, found out the hard way in 2020 when three plainclothes officers stopped him at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The officers already knew that Johnson had cash in his luggage because a tipster—presumably with the Transportation Security Administration—had alerted them in advance.
Like Woods, Johnson had done nothing wrong. He came to Arizona with $39,500 to purchase a third semi-tractor truck for his logistics business. But he soon found himself in a back room answering questions without an attorney.
At some point during the interaction, the police say that Johnson consented to a search. What happened next was predictable. The Phoenix Police Department seized everything using civil forfeiture, and left Johnson penniless in the terminal.
Many travelers have similar stories.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s cramped interpretations of the Fourth Amendment enable these sorts of abuses. Each part of a coercive encounter can be traced to various holdings.
For starters, the High Court has said that police need only “reasonable suspicion”—not the “probable cause” contained in the Fourth Amendment’s text—to pull over a car, detain a person on the sidewalk or in an airport, or conduct a so-called “investigatory” search for weapons.
Second, judges are prohibited from asking whether any of those acts are pretextual, i.e., whether they are done to harass or conduct a fishing expedition for cash or contraband. Third, while police need consent to conduct a search without reasonable suspicion, the Supreme Court has eliminated the most obvious tool for ensuring that consent is freely given, by holding that police need not tell a person they are free to refuse.
Finally, the court has paired its elimination of those safeguards against nonconsensual searches with rules that permit police to require motorists to exit their car in the course of any traffic stop, to conduct dog sniffs without any basis for suspicion, and to arrest motorists and take them to jail for any misdemeanor traffic violation.
As one prominent search-and-seizure scholar has characterized it, this system reeks of “too much routine, not enough Fourth Amendment.”
People like Woods and Johnson have no chance under such a rigged system. The result is not only the erosion of constitutional rights, but also loss of respect for law enforcement, which a University of Central Florida study confirms.
As the research shows, people develop strong negative opinions about the police when officers seek “consent” for warrantless searches.
Communities grow suspicious, and soon hesitate to report crimes, provide tips and cooperate with the police in other ways. Low-income neighborhoods suffer the most, as police abuse ripens conditions for non-police abuse.
The Fourth Amendment is clear: Police should not conduct searches or seizures without probable cause to believe that a person has committed a particular crime and a warrant signed by a judge. Consent is a recognized exception to those requirements, but it should not permit making someone sit in a police car or airport security room surrounded by armed agents until they “agree” to an invasion of their privacy.
The police have all the power when they start giving orders, and the lines quickly blur between a demand and a request. Courts must level the playing field and start pushing back.
Jaba Tsitsuashvili is an attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.