The two cases of Bud Light in the bed of John Werthing Jr.'s, pickup were still cold when Hutchins police pulled him over around 8 a.m. on September 30, 2013. A clerk at a Shell gas station had called in a shoplifting complaint a few moments before; a man matching Worthing's description and driving a white, 2001 Ford F150, had grabbed three 18-packs of Bud Light from the cooler and walked out of the store without paying. She'd only been able to retrieve one of the 18-packs before the thief drove off, but the other two were still in the bed of the pickup.
The cops had found the missing beer. They were also reasonably certain that Werthing was the guy who'd stolen beer from a Hutchins Quik Trip on two of the previous three nights. Less than 12 hours before, a man had walked into the Quik Trip, grabbed three cartons of Busch Light from the beer cooler, and walked out to his truck. Then he'd walked back in and grabbed three 18-packs of Bud Light. A clerk finally spotted him on his third trip (three 18-packs of Coors Light) and asked if he was going to pay for the beer. He replied, "No."
Werthing was arrested following the September 30 traffic stop and taken to the Hutchins City Jail. A few days later he was transferred to Lew Sterrett, the main Dallas County jail, where he would spend the next seven months after pleading guilty to three beer thefts.
Werthing knew the drill. An inconsistently employed warehouse worker, he's been in and out of Lew Sterrett several times over the past 15 years, once for robbery, usually for petty theft. He started stealing beer, he says, as a way to make ends meet, selling the stolen cases on the street for $10 a pop.
When he was arrested in 2013, Werthing figured he'd do as he'd done before: serve out his time and go retrieve his vehicle from the impound lot when he got out.
This time, though, there would be no getting his truck back. The government had taken it under Texas' civil forfeiture laws on the grounds that it had been used to facilitate the theft of those two cases of beer.
Werthing's case is unusual. The vast majority of civil forfeiture cases in Dallas County involve suspected drug dealers. Say, as an example, Dallas police search a home and find on a coffee table a suspiciously large stack of cash next to several ounces of meth. Civil forfeiture gives cops and prosecutors a way to keep that money, which the evidence suggests was made by selling drugs, by filing an absurd-sounding lawsuit against it (something along the lines of State of Texas vs. One thousand three hundred twenty two dollars and eight-nine cents in U.S. Currency). These cases have a lower burden of proof than in a criminal prosecution, and they don't trigger a defendant's due process rights, because why should a stack of cash need a lawyer?
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But as Werthing discovered, Texas' civil forfeiture law is much broader than that. It can be applied to a wide range of alleged misdeeds, including petty theft (property valued under $1,500) if the thief has been convicted of the offense on multiple previous occasions. Because of his lengthy rap sheet, the $60 worth of beer Werthing placed in the bed of his pickup made the truck contraband.
I visited Werthing on Wednesday at Lew Sterrett. He's tall, maybe 6-foot-3, and solidly built, with a more than passing resemblance to Debo from the Friday movies. He struggled to wrap his mind around the fact that the government could simply take his truck. Sure, he'd stolen the beer, but why should that entitle the government to his truck? When he was served with the civil forfeiture lawsuit, he filed an answer saying he wanted the truck back, but he didn't have a lawyer and he was in jail at the time and so didn't show up for the trial. He kept saying he was going to see about getting his truck back when he finishes his current stint in jail, failing to realize that it's a lost cause; it's no longer his truck.
I asked if Werthing would have stolen the beer back in 2013 if he knew the cops would take his truck. He shook his head. He would have preferred to keep the truck. Not that he seemed overly repentant. He was arrested on January 11 for -- what else? -- stealing beer.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.