by J.D. Schmidt
While driving cross-country from Texas to California in February, retired Marine Stephen Lara was pulled over by the Nevada Highway Patrol. Little did Lara know, but he was about to become the victim of an all too common form of (legal) highway robbery: a thorough fleecing at the hands of both state and federal law enforcement under the banner of “civil asset forfeiture.”
The trooper who pulled him over at first mentioned something about Lara following too close to a commercial vehicle. But in bodycam footage obtained by Lara’s lawyers, though the highway patrolman mentioned smuggling, drug trafficking, and human trafficking, he didn’t waste any time moving on to the real reason for the whole bizarre traffic stop: “Any large amounts of U.S. currency in there?”
Unfortunately for Lara, he was indeed carrying a large amount of cash in his vehicle. His life’s savings, in fact—a total of $86,900. Unfortunately, Lara, who explained to the officer that he simply didn’t trust banks and had receipts, deposit slips, and other documents to account for all of the cash he was carrying, voluntarily submitted to a search of his vehicle. At this point, the trooper cinched the deal by calling in a canine unit and reaching out to his local DEA agent, allowing the feds to “adopt” the case and thus circumvent more stringent Nevada laws on search and seizure. The dogs allegedly alerted for drug residue on the cash, and Lara was left stranded on the side of the road, without even enough money to finish his journey.
As lawyers from the libertarian Institute for Justice (“IJ”) are working to prove in court, Lara’s case is a blatant example of the unconstitutional way in which civil asset forfeiture is used as a fundraising mechanism for federal, state, and local law enforcement. State and local police working hand in glove with federal agencies such as the DEA and FBI use Drug War-enhanced cooperative measures to run shakedown and kickback schemes whereby local and state cops fleece citizens for the feds. In return, the feds cut them in on a substantial share of the filthy lucre gleaned—up to 80% of assets seized, to the tune of $334,000,000 in 2019 alone.
It is common knowledge that there is some level of drug residue on almost all U.S. currency in circulation, but this and other flimsy pretexts—such as the minor moving violation Lara was accused of, but never even fined for—provide ample opportunities for these highway robbers to bilk unsuspecting, innocent people (until proven otherwise) out of millions of dollars every year.
Luckily for Lara, the public outcry created when his case made national news, along with legal motions filed by the IJ, pressured the DEA to return his money back to him. Most innocent victims of civil asset forfeiture are not so lucky. Dashcam and bodycam footage released via the proceedings in Lara’s case are providing the public with a rarely seen window into the day to day workings of this highway robbery scheme. It can only be hoped that this public exposure, and the lawsuit being brought against the state of Nevada on Lara’s behalf by the IJ, will help speed the process of much-needed reform.
Editor’s note: If police are asking for your permission to search, it’s because they need your consent to do so. If they didn’t legally need your permission, they’d already be searching, not asking you if they may do so. If police ask for your consent to search, you are absolutely within your rights to refuse and then ask, “am I being detained?” (this is not limited to traffic stops but applies to all police-citizen encounters). The answer will almost always be “no” because asking to perform a search was simply a fishing expedition to which many people unknowingly agree. If you’re not being lawfully detained, then you are, in general, free to leave.
Another potential issue in situations like Lara’s is the police practice of artificially prolonging the traffic stop beyond the time necessary to resolve the matter for which the traffic stop was lawfully initiated (in most cases, to address an alleged traffic infraction) in order to allow time for a drug detection dog to arrive on scene. Depending on the jurisdiction, this practice may be unlawful because the time during which the traffic stop is artificially prolonged constitutes an unlawful seizure.
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