Asset Seizure at Houston Airport Shows Need for Reform

March 24, 2017 by

Civil asset forfeiture, often called legalized theft, is at its core a basic property rights issue. A property owner should not have to bear the burden of justifying innocent ownership. However, last year two New Yorkers travelling through Houston got to experience the downside of such a broad and unrestrained tool.

Friends and business partners, Andre Stephenson and Brandon Gertz decided to take a trip from New York to California by way of Houston’s Hobby Airport in March of 2016.

Gertz, owner of apparel company “Grits and Gravy,” and Stephenson, college student and partner in Grits and Gravy, both had business they planned to attend to while in California. Gertz wanted to visit his father, while Stephenson wanted to tour colleges and look for a car. Stephenson had planned on putting his NYU admission on hold to move to California and attend college. While there, they also wanted to scout some new West Coast apparel for their East Coast-based business.

Unfortunately, deciding to carry $13,900 in cash through Hobby airport turned out to be a mistake. Even though the two were never charged with a crime, and were able to document where they got the money, Houston Police Department seized the cash and thus kicked off a yearlong battle over the boy’s money.

Gertz and Stephenson Sworn Statement

In their sworn affidavits, both men said that during the layover Stephenson went to use the restroom; at that time they were approached by four Houston Police Department narcotics officers. The officers questioned them about where they were going, why, and if they had a large amount of money or illicit drugs on them.

After answering honestly, affirming they were carrying a large sum of cash, Stephenson said, “without reading any rights or seeking consent, the officers said, ‘you’re going to miss your connecting flight because you have to come with us.’”

They went with the officers into backrooms of the airport. Stephenson asked to call his mother, a New York-based attorney, but was told he was not allowed to use his phone at that time.  Both men reported that before they were separated they heard an officer say, “if [we] were in New York [you] would be in a choke hold by now.”

The officers took the two into separate rooms and began questioning them.

Stephenson explained that he was going to California to visit colleges and planned on staying for an unspecified time. The money he was carrying was for traveling expenses, college tours, clothes, merchandise, food, and shelter.

In a separate interrogation room, Gertz was pleading his case. He told officers that, for him, the trip was to find merchandise to expand his business and visit his father in Sacramento. Gertz even offered names of merchandisers he intended to visit. Telling the officers that the cash on him was a mix of funds Stephenson gave him to invest in Grits and Gravy, profits to-date, and money he saved from other work. The officers’ report said they looked up his business name online and didn’t turn up anything, leading to increased suspicion.

“The officers then took all my money, leaving me with no money to travel with or buy food or anything…The money was then taken into another room where it is alleged that a canine sniffed the money,” read Stephenson’s affidavit.

“I overheard the officer tell my mother that, ‘I had not committed any crime and was not under arrest and so they did not need probable cause nor did her son need to call his attorney.’”

After their money was seized, they were released, able to catch the next flight, never facing any charges.

Police Statement

According to the report by HPD’s Narcotics Division, TARP (Truck, Air, Rail, and Port) Squad 4 received information that, “two possible money couriers, were traveling from New York, New York to Sacramento, California (known source city for narcotics), with a stop in Houston, Texas.”

Upon arriving at Hobby, the officers noticed Gertz had a suitcase and Stephenson didn’t, and they both appeared to be nervous, “scanning the area as if they were looking for law enforcement.”

The report says that the officers began a consensual conversation with the two individuals, and they willingly cooperated. The officers then used the canines alerting when sniffing the money as reason for the seizure. Reports have found that canines have become increasingly unreliable at sniffing out drugs, and coupled with the fact that over 90 percent of U.S. bills carry traces of narcotics, they often provide a “false alert.”

Judgment

After being served with the notice of seizure, Stephenson’s mother and attorney, Syntyche, filed a motion of dismissal along with a sworn statement detailing that she gave her son most of the money.

In response to the motion, a Harris County Assistant District Attorney filed a motion to strike the dismissal on the grounds that Stephenson was not a licensed attorney in the state of Texas, and had not completed the “requirements for participation in Texas proceeding by non-resident attorney.” The judge ruled in favor of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office (HCDAO), and set a trial to begin in July 2017.

The case languished for nearly a year, denying the two innocent owners of their assets, until February 2017, when Angela Beavers was designated as the attorney-in-charge on the case. Eighteen days later there was a final agreement and judgment.

After a yearlong battle, the judgment was to return to Gertz $3,700 of his original $7,600, Stephenson $3,200 of his original $6,300, and $4,000 to the intervenor, Syntyche Stephenson. They forfeited $3,000 of the seized funds to HCDAO, and were forced to pay court costs, after never having been charged with, or accused of, a crime.

In a response to an email we sent asking the Institute for Justice to examine the case documents, Matt Miller Managing Attorney for IJ said, “Like you, I found no criminal charges or conviction associated with these facts…this is deeply troubling but not uncommon in civil forfeiture cases.”

He continued, “Until our laws are reformed, abuses like the ones this case documents will continue.”

Whether or not the $13,900 were proceeds of illegal activity, as the police report claimed, the facts are that their only crime was carrying too much money on them and looking suspicious while traveling.

“The seizure of my money has caused me severe financial hardship. My mother was forced to send money to me and to pay for return flights to New York for myself and Mr. Gertz,” said Stephenson. “The seizure of my money has also forced me to put my college plans on hold.”

Although $3,000 of their money was forfeited without indictment, trial, or conviction, Gertz and Stephenson were lucky. Others without the wherewithal to fight back against one largest district attorney’s offices in the country might have just surrendered their assets because of how costly and time consuming the fight can be.

This glaring example of the unjust system of civil asset forfeiture in the State of Texas is only one of many. Personal property rights should not be disregarded because of mere suspicion. That it took a year to prove their property’s innocence, only to receive partial reimbursement, should be reason enough to support reforming civil asset forfeiture in this state.

*We reached out to both the attorney-in-charge, Angela Beavers, and the attorney representing the respondents, Syntyche Stephenson, but did not receive a response at the time of publishing. 

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.