(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 from undocumented immigrants during traffic stops.
Last month, investigators with the Texas Rangers and the Texas Attorney General’s Office raided four Real County Sheriff’s Office locations as part of an investigation into Sheriff Nathan Johnson, according to search warrants obtained this week by The Texas Tribune. The investigating Texas Ranger said Johnson admitted to regularly seizing money from undocumented immigrants during traffic stops, even if they were not accused of any state crime, before handing them over to United States Border Patrol agents.
One sheriff’s deputy told investigators that “seizing currency from undocumented immigrants and the driver has been standard operating procedure for as long as he has been employed by the Real County Sheriff’s Office,” Texas Ranger Ricardo Guajardo wrote in the warrant requests.
Guajardo accused Johnson of felony-level theft by a public servant and abuse of official capacity, alleging the sheriff’s cash and vehicle seizures were in violation of the state’s relatively lenient civil asset forfeiture laws.
Johnson did not respond to specific questions Monday, stating that his and county attorneys are reviewing the newly released affidavit. In November, he told investigators money and cars are sometimes held as evidence for potential criminal cases, according to Guajardo. After his offices were raided in December, Johnson said in a Facebook post that he didn’t know what prompted the investigation, had not been arrested and would continue to serve his constituents.
“Especially in the last year, I have taken a strong stand against human smuggling, drug smuggling, and illegal alien traffic in our community and will continue to do so,” Johnson wrote.
It’s unclear if any charges have been or will be 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.
The search warrants were carried out at two sheriff’s offices and two impound lots last month to seek evidence investigators believe will bolster their case against Johnson. The warrants include computers, cellphones, seized evidence regarding money or vehicles, financial statements and other data going back to 2017, when Johnson took office.
The investigation into the Republican sheriff is underway as a political firestorm rages over immigration policy, with the state and country facing record-high levels of U.S.-Mexico border crossings. Blaming the rise on President Joe Biden, Gov. Greg Abbott has sent thousands of state police and military personnel to “arrest and jail” people suspected of having crossed the border illegally on state criminal charges.
Real County is home to about 3,400 residents and is near but not on the border, sitting about 100 miles northeast of Del Rio, the epicenter of migrant crossings in Texas last year and a focus of Abbott’s border security operation.
In Texas, police can take cash and property believed to be related to criminal activity, even if the person involved is never charged with a crime. Such seizures, however, require an already controversial forfeiture process during which prosecutors must file a civil lawsuit against the property for police to keep it.
Johnson, however, told Guajardo in November that he did not initiate such proceedings, the warrant stated. Instead, in two instances when Real County was assisted by neighboring law enforcement agencies, the sheriff classified seized property as abandoned or labeled it as evidence for potential charges, according to the warrant.
Aside from potential criminal charges, avoiding the state’s forfeiture laws creates constitutional concerns and bad optics, according to Arif Panju, the managing attorney for the Texas office of the Institute for Justice, a legal organization against civil asset forfeiture.
“If you’re doing it outside the judicial process, you can see the perverse incentive that would exist,” Panju said. “If you could seize these things, not go to a court, seize it unilaterally and then keep it in your budget … that is again policing for profit with zero oversight.”
Guajardo began investigating Johnson in October after discussions with the attorney general’s office, the warrant said, focusing on two traffic stops.
Body camera footage of a May 2021 traffic stop taken by a sheriff’s deputy from neighboring Edwards County showed Johnson directing his deputies to seize money and a truck from undocumented immigrants. The seized money was to be filed as abandoned cash and deposited into the Real County general fund, Guajardo detailed. Johnson said he would try to find the truck’s registered owners, but after 30 days the vehicle would also be considered abandoned.
During another traffic stop in October, more than $2,700 in cash taken from three immigrants’ wallets was said to be marked as evidence while waiting to see if human smuggling charges against the driver would stick. The other two men were referred to Border Patrol, where they asked what had happened to the money in their wallets. Guajardo said the seizing deputy 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 paperwork was filed in money seizures, but that money and vehicles were being held as evidence due to trafficking crimes. Days after the traffic stop, Johnson said he consulted with the local district attorney and was told he needed to initiate forfeiture proceedings after property seizures.
Before then, Guajardo wrote that Johnson said “his office was seizing all currency to include currency in possession of undocumented immigrants before being released to the custody of the United States Border Patrol.”
The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.