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Federal court upholds ruling to return $167K seized in traffic stop

Updated June 12, 2017 - 1:47 pm

CARSON CITY — A man who had $167,000 in cash confiscated by law enforcement during a traffic stop near Elko in 2013 won a victory in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday with a ruling that found the search of his motor home was unconstitutional.

Straughn Gorman was stopped outside of Wells in January 2013 for a minor traffic infraction by a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper. The officer believed Gorman might be carrying drug money, and he attempted to summon a drug-sniffing dog. The move prolonged Gorman’s detention for nearly half an hour before Gorman was let go because a reason to search the vehicle was not found.

The officer then contacted the sheriff’s office in Elko to ask that Gorman be stopped a second time.

“You’re going to need a dog,” the officer said.

A sheriff’s deputy with a dog made a special trip to the highway and stopped Gorman. The dog signaled the odor of drugs or drug-tainted currency, which was used to obtain a search warrant. A search found the cash in various interior compartments.

Gorman’s Las Vegas lawyer, Vincent Savarese, called the 9th Circuit decision a “very important precedent” in federal constitutional law.

“I am absolutely delighted by the very thorough and comprehensive analysis of the 9th Circuit in addressing what it very aptly characterized as police ‘gamesmanship’ purposefully designed to evade vital Fourth Amendment protections by and through the use of successive vehicle stops and what I call a catch, release, and recapture tactic,” he said.

No criminal charges were brought against Gorman. Instead, the government sought to seize the money through civil forfeiture.

The state turned the money over to the federal government, which pursued the forfeiture under a revenue-sharing program in which the state may keep as much as 80 percent of the seized funds.

Gorman challenged the forfeiture, arguing that the stops violated the Fourth Amendment. They won the case at the U.S. District Court level. The court ordered the money returned and awarded attorneys fees. The government appealed.

The 9th Circuit panel upheld the lower court, finding that the first stop, because of the unjustified delay, was unconstitutional. As a result, the money obtained as a result of the second stop was tainted, the court panel said.

“Here, the officers’ impermissible gamesmanship is precisely what the Constitution proscribes,” the court panel said.

Contact Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @seanw801 on Twitter.

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