EDITORIAL: Shakedowns in Humboldt County

The people of this country enjoy the presumption of innocence when accused of criminal wrongdoing. Their possessions, however, are not afforded similar protections — especially along Interstate 80 in Nevada’s Humboldt County.

Asset forfeiture and seizure laws turn constitutional rights upside down. Although you are innocent until proved guilty, authorities can take and keep your stuff if they suspect the assets were obtained or used in the commission of a crime. And to get the stuff back, whether it’s cash, a car or a house, defendants face the burden of proving their property was obtained lawfully, a standard that flies in the face of due process.

Such laws invite abuse by police and prosecutors, who have a powerful financial incentive to swipe valuables for any reason that suits them: They can use the assets to bolster their department budgets. And they don’t even have to charge someone with a crime to take their possessions, let alone convict them of a criminal offense.

Two federal lawsuits filed in Reno make a powerful argument for rolling back asset forfeiture laws. As reported by Scott Sonner of The Associated Press, in both cases, deputy Lee Dove of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department is accused of shaking down I-80 travelers without so much as writing them a citation.

According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of California resident Tan Nguyen, Mr. Dove stopped Mr. Nguyen Sept. 23 for driving 78 mph in a 75 mph zone and claimed he smelled marijuana in the car. Mr. Nguyen said he did not consent to search of his vehicle, but Mr. Dove did so and found a briefcase containing $50,000. Mr. Nguyen said he won the money at a casino, but the deputy said he believed the money was obtained illegally. Mr. Dove took the cash, issued Mr. Nguyen a written warning for speeding and had him sign a “property for safekeeping receipt” indicating the money was abandoned and not returnable. There were no drugs in the car. Mr. Nguyen’s lawsuit says he signed the receipt because the deputy had threatened to seize the rental vehicle and strand him unless Mr. Nguyen “got in his car and drove off and forgot this ever happened.”

A lawsuit brought by Colorado resident Ken Smith alleges he was stopped Dec. 16 and detained on a warrant for another man with a similar name but a different race and birth date. Instead of arresting Mr. Smith on that warrant, Mr. Dove searched his car, seized $13,800 in cash and a handgun and allowed him to leave.

A lot of people in this state — gamblers, tip earners and regular folks who don’t trust banks — carry large amounts of cash. That, by itself, is not a crime. These stops are nothing more than money grabs. The day after Mr. Nguyen’s money was confiscated, Sheriff Ed Kilgore sent out a news release and photo of Mr. Dove posing with the cash and a police dog. “This cash would have been used to purchase illegal drugs and now will benefit Humboldt County with training and equipment,” the release said with absolute certainty. “Great job.”

It’s one thing for police to serve a search warrant on a home, find hundreds of pounds of illegal narcotics, and seize cash and cars as evidence in a criminal prosecution. It’s entirely another to use profiled traffic stops as a pretext for dubious searches that otherwise lack probable cause. Across the country, police departments have seized and spent tens of millions of dollars without related criminal convictions. In many cases, departments overwhelmingly target racial and ethnic minorities. They push the same deal Mr. Dove is accused of offering: surrender your cash or surrender your freedom. As The New Yorker reported last year, police have even threatened to take children and turn them over to protective services if parents refused to give up their property.

This kind of policing tramples the Constitution. The erosion of Fourth Amendment protections and property rights is a slippery slope. There’s nothing to stop police from grabbing jewelry, smartphones or anything else of value if officers have a need for new body armor.

“Asset forfeiture today, the way it exists federally, as well as in many states, is an institutional corruption,” retired California Judge Jim Gray told Nick Sibilla of Forbes. “None of the (forfeiture) money should go to law enforcement. That provides them an inappropriate incentive.” Sheriff Kilgore defends his department’s approach, saying it’s consistent with law enforcement tactics elsewhere. How comforting.

The lawsuits filed in Reno could take years to resolve, but what’s happening in Humboldt County cries out for immediate intervention. The U.S. Justice Department should review the traffic stop and asset seizure practices of the sheriff’s department. And the Nevada Legislature and Congress should reform asset forfeiture laws to prevent the taking of personal property until a defendant has been convicted of a crime.