“You’re taking food out of my kids’ mouths.”
That’s what Stephen Lara, a Marine veteran, told Nevada Highway Patrol officers after they confiscated his life savings–$87,000 in cash–from his vehicle during a traffic stop outside of Reno in February.
The officers said they believed Lara’s cash was from dealing drugs. Lara had not committed a crime, a point NHP officers acknowledged after calling the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency about the stop. Lara provided officers with bank receipts for the cash.
He was pulled over allegedly for following a vehicle too closely and “driving under the speed limit.”
The officer who pulled him over, though, complimented his driving. “You drive great,” the officer said.
Lara, who was traveling from Texas to Portola, California, allowed officers to search his vehicle. He said he had nothing to hide. NHP, in concert with the DEA, then took his money.
“I brought my life savings of $86,900 in cash, which I had been saving in the hopes of purchasing a home where my daughters could live,” he said in a court filing.
Lara had to get $1,000 wired to him to continue his road trip.
“I [now] have no way of providing for my children,” he told the officers on the side of Interstate-80 east of Sparks.
A public interest law firm, Institute for Justice, filed two lawsuits on Lara’s behalf–one to get back his money and another for what they said were violations of Nevada laws.
The Institute released on Monday body camera footage of the stop. The firm called the video a “rare glimpse into an abuse of power that thousands of innocent Americans experience each year.”
Lara said he carried cash because he does not trust banks. Court documents show he thought the seizure was a misunderstanding, “but the [DEA] agent treated him like a criminal.”
The Institute said that, by law, the DEA should have returned Lara’s money within 90 days. That didn’t happen, Lara’s attorneys said.
After filing both lawsuits, Lara received his money back plus interest but his case in Nevada is still pending.
Nevada’s asset forfeitures again in public spotlight
U.S. Attorney Nicholas Trutanich in January said $8.6 million was seized in Nevada last year.
“Throughout 2020, we continued to expand our coordination with law enforcement agencies and other collection partners, and we’re honored to be able to contribute these funds for (among other things) victim compensation and victim assistance,” he said.
Seizure of cash and assets primarily stems from criminal drug activities. The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office reported it seized $3.9 million in 2020 from alleged drug operations.
But innocent people, or people proven innocent after being charged with crimes, and even serving prison sentences, report extreme difficulty in getting back their property.
The Nevada Supreme Court dismissed a case against Robert Coache, a former state water official, for lack of evidence in 2019. Coache faced more than 40 charges levied by the Clark County District Attorney. He said it took him more than a year to get back his property and assets from the DA.
He is suing the DA’s office and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for civil rights violations. He is seeking $5 million in damages after serving 16 months in prison.
“I’m still paying the price for this,” he told This is Reno. His banks and credit card companies have canceled his accounts based on his case even though he was cleared of the charges against him.
The Nevada Legislature this year considered tightening restrictions on civil asset forfeiture. Police agencies and prosecutors, including the Washoe County District Attorney’s office, opposed an Assembly bill that was pushed by those concerned with civil liberty issues surrounding asset forfeiture.
“In Nevada, civil asset forfeiture disproportionately hurts low-income and minority residents,” Marcos Lopez with Americans for Prosperity testified. “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.”
Lopez said law enforcement agencies in Nevada have seized more than $5 million in private property.
“The majority of forfeitures were less than $1,000, leaving little to no recourse for the accused due to the cost of hiring an attorney and subsequent legal action outweighing the value of the confiscated property,” he added.
NPRI’s Daniel Honchariw agreed.
“Contesting forfeitures is often cost-prohibitive because … accused property owners generally lack the financial and legal resources to effectively contest the seizure and auctioning-off of their property and … even when they do, the cost of hiring an attorney often outweighs the value of the property seized,” he said.
The Assembly bill did not pass.
The Institute for Justice gives Nevada a D-minus ranking for its civil asset forfeiture protections.
“Nevada adopted positive reforms to its civil forfeiture laws in 2015, but its law grade is pulled down to a D- by weak protections for innocent owners and a strong financial incentive to seize,” the group notes on its website. “The Silver State’s grade is further tarnished by a large incentive to seize: Law enforcement agencies retain up to 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds.
“However, if a given forfeiture account exceeds $100,000 at the end of the fiscal year, 70 percent of the excess funds must be given to the school district in the judicial district where the property was seized.”
Christopher Peterson, attorney with the ACLU of Nevada, said Nevada’s civil forfeiture laws bank on small dollar amounts that cost more to fight for with an attorney than the amount of property seized is worth.
“The playing field is pretty slanted, especially against a poor defendant,” he said. “The core problem here is how we have incentivized our police departments and our state actors. Even if it gets fixed later, the harm is done. You can’t get back the period of time where that person doesn’t have their money and doesn’t have their assets. That damage is done.”
There were two similar cases to Lara’s out of Humboldt County, both resulting in settlements primarily to cover attorney fees. One was lambasted by John Oliver in the clip below.
The other case in 2014 happened after NHP seized $50,000 from Tan Nguyen. Nguyen called NHP’s seizure of his money, cash he won gambling, highway robbery.
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.