Texas Sheriff Under Investigation for Regularly Seizing Money from Undocumented Immigrants
(The Texas Tribune) – A rural sheriff near the Texas border is under criminal investigation for allegedly having his deputies illegally seize money and a truck of undocumented immigrants during traffic stops.
Texas Rangers and Texas Attorney General’s office investigators last month raided four real county sheriff’s offices as part of an investigation into Sheriff Nathan Johnson, according to search warrants obtained by Texas this week. Tribune. The Texas Ranger investigator said Johnson admitted to routinely seizing money from undocumented immigrants during traffic stops, even though they were not charged with any state crimes, before handing them over to the US border patrol officers.
A sheriff’s deputy told investigators “seizing money from undocumented migrants and the driver was standard procedure since being employed by the actual county sheriff’s office,” the Texas wrote. Place Ricardo Guajardo in the warrant requests.
Guajardo has charged Johnson with criminal theft by an official and abuse of official capacity, alleging that the sheriff’s seizures of money and vehicles were in violation of the state’s relatively lenient civil laws on asset forfeiture.
Johnson did not respond to specific questions on Monday, saying his attorneys and those in the county were reviewing the recently released affidavit. In November, he told investigators that money and cars were sometimes withheld as evidence of possible criminal cases, according to Guajardo. After his office was raided in December, Johnson said in a Facebook post that he did not know what prompted the investigation, that he had not been arrested and that he would continue to serve his constituents.
“Particularly last year, I took a strong stand against human trafficking, drug trafficking and illegal alien trafficking in our community and will continue to do so,” Johnson wrote.
It is not known whether charges have been or will be filed against Johnson. The attorney general’s office did not respond to questions on Monday, and the Texas Department of Public Safety said it had no information to release.
Search warrants were executed at two sheriff’s offices and two impound lots last month to seek evidence investigators believe to strengthen their case against Johnson. The warrants include computers, cell phones, seized evidence of money or vehicles, financial statements and other data dating back to 2017 when Johnson took office.
The Republican sheriff’s investigation is ongoing as a political storm rages over immigration policy, with the state and country facing record levels of border crossings between the United States and Mexico. Blaming the rise of President Joe Biden, Governor Greg Abbott has sent thousands of police and state service personnel to “arrest and jail” people suspected of illegally crossing the border on state criminal charges.
Real County is home to about 3,400 residents and is located near but not on the border, about 100 miles northeast of Del Rio, the epicenter of migrant crossings to Texas last year and central l Abbott border security operation.
Police in Texas can take money and property suspected of being linked to criminal activity, even though the person involved is never charged with a crime. Such foreclosures, however, require an already controversial forfeiture process in which prosecutors must take civil action against the property so that the police can retain it.
Johnson, however, told Guajardo in November that he had not initiated such proceedings, according to the warrant. Instead, in two instances where Real County was assisted by neighboring law enforcement agencies, the sheriff classified the seized property as abandoned or tagged it as evidence of potential charges, depending on the warrant.
Potential criminal charges aside, avoiding state forfeiture laws creates constitutional problems and a poor outlook, according to Arif Panju, general counsel for the Texas office of the Institute for Justice, an anti-confiscation legal organization. civilian assets.
“If you do it outside of the court process, you can see the evil incitement that would exist,” Panju said. “If you could grab these things, don’t go to court, grab them unilaterally and then keep them in your budget…
Guajardo began investigating Johnson in October after discussions with the attorney general’s office, according to the warrant, focusing on two traffic stops.
Body camera footage of a traffic stop in May 2021 taken by a sheriff’s deputy in neighboring Edwards County showed Johnson ordering his deputies to seize money and a truck of undocumented immigrants . The seized money was to be classified as abandoned species and deposited in the actual county general fund, Guajardo detailed. Johnson said he would try to find the registered owners of the truck, but after 30 days the vehicle would also be considered abandoned.
At another traffic stop in October, more than $ 2,700 in cash taken from the wallets of three immigrants was reportedly marked as evidence pending to see if the human trafficking charges against the driver continued. The other two men were referred to the border patrol, where they asked what had happened to the money in their wallets. Guajardo said the foreclosure assistant couldn’t say under what authority the money was taken, just that Johnson told him to take it.
When Guajardo questioned Johnson about the October seizure, the sheriff said no legal forfeiture documents had been filed in the money seizures, but money and vehicles were being withheld as evidence due of trafficking-related crimes. Days after the traffic shutdown, Johnson said he consulted with the local district attorney and was told he had to initiate forfeiture proceedings after property was seized.
Prior to that, Guajardo wrote that Johnson said that “his office seizes all currency to include currency in the possession of undocumented immigrants before it is turned over to the custody of the United States Border Patrol.”
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