Sheriff investigates illegal seizures

REAL, Texas – A rural sheriff is under criminal investigation near the Texas border after his agents allegedly seized money and a truck from undocumented immigrants during a traffic stop.

Last month, Texas Rangers investigators and the Texas Attorney General’s office raided four Real County Sheriff’s Office premises as part of an investigation into Sheriff Nathan Johnson, according to search warrants obtained by Texas this week. Tribune.

The Texas Ranger investigating said Johnson admitted to routinely seizing money from undocumented immigrants during traffic stops, even though he was not charged with any state crime, giving it to US Border Patrol agents. before handing over.

Texas Ranger State Trooper Ricardo Guajardo wrote in the order requests that a deputy sheriff told investigators that “seizing money from undocumented immigrants and the driver has been standard operating procedure because he has been employed by the Real County Sheriff’s Office.”

Guajardo accused Johnson of theft and abuse of official capacity by a government employee, alleging that the sheriff’s seizure of cash and vehicles violated relatively liberal state civil property confiscation laws.

Johnson did not respond to specific questions on Monday, saying he and county attorneys were reviewing the recently released affidavit. In November, he told investigators that money and cars are sometimes held up as evidence of potential criminal cases, according to Guajardo.

After his offices were raided in December, Johnson said in a Facebook post that he did not know what led to the investigation, that he had not been arrested and that he would continue to serve his constituents.

“Last year in particular, I have taken a strong stand against human trafficking, drug trafficking and the illegal trafficking of foreigners into our community and will continue to do so,” Johnson wrote.

It is not clear whether charges have been filed against Johnson. The attorney general’s office did not respond to questions Monday, and the Texas Department of Public Safety said it had no information to release.

Search warrants were issued last month at two sheriff’s offices and two seizure lots to look for evidence that investigators believe will strengthen their case against Johnson. The warrants include confiscated evidence of computers, cell phones, money or vehicles, financial statements and other data that dates back to 2017, when Johnson took office.

The Republican sheriff’s investigation is underway as states and countries face record levels of border crossings between the United States and Mexico, as well as a political storm brewing over immigration policy.

Blaming President Joe Biden for the escalation, Governor Greg Abbott sent thousands of state police and military personnel to “arrest and jail” on state criminal charges suspected of illegally crossing the border.

Real County is home to about 3,400 residents and is near, but not on the border, about 100 miles northeast of Del Rio, the center of immigrant crossings and operations in Texas last year. Border Security Officer.

In Texas, police can seize cash and property believed to be related to criminal activity even if the person involved has never been charged with a crime. However, such seizures require an already controversial forfeiture process, during which prosecutors must file a civil suit against the property so that police can keep it.

However, Johnson told Guajardo in November that he had not initiated such proceedings pursuant to a court order. Instead, in two instances in which the Royal County was assisted by neighboring law enforcement agencies, the sheriff left the confiscated property or labeled it as evidence of possible charges by court order.

In addition to potential criminal charges, evading state confiscation laws raises constitutional concerns and poor optics, according to attorney-manager Arif Panju of the Texas Office of the Institute of Justice, a legal organization against civil property confiscation.

ā€œIf you are doing this outside the judicial process, you can see perverse incentives,ā€ Panju said.

“If you can confiscate these things, not go to court, confiscate them unilaterally and then keep them within your budget… that’s nonprofit surveillance again.”

Body camera footage of a traffic stop taken by a sheriff’s deputy for neighboring Edwards County in May 2021 shows Johnson ordering his deputy to seize money and a truck carrying undocumented immigrants. Guajardo said the confiscated money would be filed as abandoned cash and deposited in Condado Real’s general fund. Johnson said he would try to find the truck’s registered owners, but the vehicle would also be released after 30 days.

During another traffic stop in October, it was said that more than $2,700 in cash stolen from the purses of three immigrants was marked as evidence while they waited to see if the driver Human trafficking charges will be raised against him. The other two men were sent to the border patrol, where they were asked what happened to the cash in their wallet. Guajardo said the seizure officer could not say under what authority the money was taken, only that Johnson had asked it to be taken.

When Guajardo questioned Johnson about the October seizure, the sheriff said that no legal forfeiture paperwork was involved in the money seizure, but that money and vehicles were being kept as evidence because of traffic offenses. Days after the traffic stop, Johnson said he consulted with the local district attorney and was told he needed to start a confiscation process after the property was seized.

Earlier, Guajardo wrote that Johnson had said “his office was confiscating all cash to include money in the possession of undocumented immigrants prior to being handed over to the custody of the US Border Patrol.”

Guajardo launched an investigation into Johnson after discussions with the attorney general’s office in October, focusing on two traffic stops, as ordered.