Federal prosecutors are continuing to fight in court to hold onto $167,000 cash that was seized in a Nevada traffic stop in 2013 – even though the driver was never charged with a crime.
Further, the feds are doing this after the Obama administration set sterner limits last spring on civil cash and asset seizures.
This case in Nevada started when a state trooper pulled over the driver of a motor home on a trip from California. He stopped the vehicle of Straughn Gorman in January 2013 for allegedly driving slowly on I-80.
Court documents state that the man was allowed to drive on without being cited, even though the state trooper thought he had cash in the motor home. The trooper said that he was unable to do an inspection because it would have required a police dog. That would necessitate getting probable cause so he could obtain a search warrant.
No dog was available, so the man was released, but the trooper told the sheriff to stop him an hour later with a drug dog. No drugs were found, but Gorman was stopped for alleged traffic violations. The sheriff still seized his motor home, cash, cell phone, cash and computer.
A federal judge in NV has ordered that the cash be returned. District Judge Larry Hicks cited the man’s ‘long detention’ for the traffic violations alleged. He also blasted federal authorities that the state trooper asked for the second stop.
Hicks wrote that the other traffic stop was not due to reasonable suspicion that would justify the stop and the investigation afterwards. Judge Hicks added that the second stop would not have taken place, if the first officer had not induced it. The second officer never had his own probable cause to conduct the stop at all.
The federal government appealed that ruling to the 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco, which has a reputation as a very liberal court. The court should also be deciding whether the driver should also be reimbursed for $153,000 for his legal fees, which the feds don’t want to pay either.
The first court appearance will occur on Nov. 19.
DOJ Issues New Directives on Asset Seizures
Earlier in 2015, the Dept. of Justice issued several directives to restrict cash and asset seizure policies across the US, after many complaints of government overreach and abuse. The first directives were issued by the acting Attorney General at the time, Eric Holder.
Holder stated at the time that federal agencies could not take any assets that were seized by any local or state law enforcement agencies. The only exceptions are those that are truly related to public safety, such as guns, ammo, any explosives, or property related to child porn.
Federal agencies are not allowed to take vehicles or cash.
Not a New Story
Cash seizure under questionable circumstances has been occurring across the US for years. Forbes states that Nevada in particular has limited protections for people whose cash or assets are seized in traffic stops. In Nevada, police may seize property under a legal standard that differs from a criminal proceeding, which is beyond a reasonable doubt. The owner of the asset or cash has the burden of proof. It means that the agency or law enforcement department can hold the assets until the person proves their innocence. Many federal agencies, such as the FBI, defend this practice under the guise of fighting drug and other crimes. And states form their laws based upon that.
Law enforcement in Nevada and many other states may keep all of the proceeds from the seizure or forfeiture. Twenty-five other US states allow law enforcement to pocket all proceeds from a cash seizure or civil forfeiture. Property owners have to prove their innocence in a civil forfeiture proceeding in 37 states. The major issue is that doing so can take months or even years, and law enforcement is hanging onto one’s property the entire time.
According to Judge Jim Gray who was a judge for 30 years in CA, “asset forfeiture as of today as it exists federally and in many states is institutional corruption.” Gray says it’s much fairer to have the proceeds from a cash seizure to go to a neutral entity or fund, such as feeding homeless people. When a law enforcement agency stands to benefit directly, there is strong incentive to seize assets.
In Florida, some law enforcement officers have seized millions of dollars over the years. One of them is Sheriff Bob Vogal, who has seized over six million dollars from southbound vehicles on I-95 in Volusia County FL. The vast majority of drug smuggling occurs on the northbound side. Vogel has stated that his ‘drug courier profile’ included cars that were going the speed limit. The Orlando Sentinel reported in 2014 that in ¾ of his cases, no charges were ever filed. And, 90% of the cash seizures involving minorities.
There is increasing pressure on local, state and federal law enforcement to put an end to unfair cash seizures and asset forfeiture. Yet these cases continue to appear across the US, and people continue still have to fight to prove their innocence in court to get their property back.
Anyone who has had cash or other assets seized in a traffic stop without what they believe to be without probable cause, would be advised to speak to an attorney experienced with cash seizures and asset forfeiture.