The Nevada State Police Highway Patrol officer who pulled over Stephen Lara in February was fundamentally dishonest. The body cam footage of the traffic stop shows NSPHP trooper Chris Brown calling in the stop for one reason, but when Brown spoke with Lara, he said something else.
Lara was pulled over for following a vehicle too closely and for “driving under the speed limit, which I thought was odd.” That’s what Brown’s body-worn camera captured him saying when he called in the stop.
What Brown told Lara was something different.
“The reason I stopped you is we have a special enforcement campaign going on,” Brown said. “We’re trying to educate drivers about violations they may not realize they’re committing. First I applaud you on your driving. You drive great.”
Lara’s mistake was letting Brown search his vehicle–never do that–because he “has nothing to hide.” That error led to his life savings in cash being confiscated by NHP merely because they believed the cash meant Lara was dealing drugs.
It’s upended his life to this day.
That one traffic stop led to two lawsuits. One is for Lara to get back his money after the DEA failed to comply with the law and return it within 90 days after it was determined a crime had not occurred. The other is challenging the legality of the cash confiscation in the first place.
Another notable impact of Lara’s stop is the wealth of negative publicity bestowed upon Nevada in the wake of NHP’s seizing Lara’s cash. The news of the cash seizure spread quickly. The Washington Post, TechDirt, Daily Mail (UK), Reason, Boing Boing, Forbes, Seattle Times and state news sources each covered the issue.
There are more than four million views of a video of the traffic stop released by the Institute for Justice, which is suing Nevada on Lara’s behalf.
The problem is that Lara’s case is not a new Nevada phenomenon. The same exact thing happened in Humboldt County in 2014 after sheriff’s deputies there bragged about taking money from a traveler who had a briefcase of cash in his vehicle.
“This cash would have been used to purchase illegal drugs and now will benefit Humboldt County with training and equipment. Great job,” the Humboldt County sheriff said in a press release after taking $50,000 from Tan Nguyen of Newport, California.
Deputies stopped Nguyen for driving over the speed limit by 3 mph.
Turns out the Humboldt County sheriff at the time wasn’t the omnipotent psychic he portrayed himself to be. Nguyen, in fact, had won the money gambling. Nguyen, along with Michael Lee of Denver, who also was a victim of the Humboldt County sheriff’s welcoming committee, had to sue to get back their money.
Veteran deputy Lee Dove was the defendant in both cases. Humboldt County had to hire a Reno attorney to defend itself. A Humboldt County DA, according to an AP report, said both men were stopped legally and that “every asset that was seized pursuant to those stops was lawfully seized.”
“But it acknowledged the resolution of their claims didn’t receive priority in the district attorney’s office because of staff shortages,” the AP reported. “’The cases involved Mr. Nguyen and Mr. Lee raised procedural issues in the District Attorney’s Office and those issues are being addressed by a review of every submitted case.’”
Those lawsuits also led to a next-level roast by commentator John Oliver, who blasted Nevada and civil asset forfeiture practices in general. You should watch it.
One might assume that with Oliver’s hilarious video as a backdrop, a cop might think twice about calling in the DEA for a traffic stop, even after the subject provided a credible explanation for why they have cash, such as bank receipts. But that would require lawsuit- and ridicule-avoidance thinking.
It’s not like government agencies haven’t been warned either. NPRI, the ACLU of Nevada and Americans for Prosperity testified in length at how civil asset forfeiture in Nevada is findamentally discriminatory in nature.
“In Nevada, civil asset forfeiture disproportionately hurts low-income and minority residents,” Marcos Lopez with Americans for Prosperity testified to the Nevada Legislature this year. “A study by Nevada Policy Research Institute [NPRI] showed most seizure-forfeitures in Clark County occurred in its poorest and most racially diverse neighborhoods, impacting those with the least means to contest forfeiture proceedings.”
The legislature declined to tighten up blatantly racist and classist laws that allow cops to take your money and possessions merely because they believe your money or possessions could have been–or will be–used in a crime.
With cop protections as great as they are, it’s no wonder Brown pulled over Lara under bogus, but legally defensible, pretexts. The end result is taxpayers keep footing the bill for this nonsense.
It will continue until legislators agree to fix asset forfeiture laws that allow cops to ensnare innocent people in a murky enactment of government intrusion.
Submitted opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of This Is Reno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article or letter to the editor here.