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Feds will fight to keep $167,000 taken from driver in Northern Nevada

Federal prosecutors are appealing a judge’s order to return $167,000 seized from a motor home on a Nevada highway following a drug search.

In court papers prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in Reno said they plan to file briefs challenging the order with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

In a June 12 decision, Senior U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks of Reno said prosecutors in earlier filings were not candid about what led Elko County sheriff’s deputies to seize the cash in January 2013. The motor home was being driven on Interstate 80 by Staughn Gorman, a resident of Hawaii.

“I’m disappointed that prosecutors are not going to accept the well-reasoned decision of Judge Hicks,” Gorman’s Las Vegas lawyer, Vincent Savarese, said Wednesday. “I do not believe they have any meritorious grounds for appeal.”

Hicks invited Gorman to seek attorneys fees from the government in the highway seizure fight, and Savarese later filed court papers detailing $153,000 in costs.

But in a move that angered Savarese, prosecutors asked Hicks not to award any fees.

“That is preposterous in view of the court’s findings that they blatantly violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures and tried to cover it up,” Savarese said.

Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden has defended the civil forfeiture case, saying his office follows the “letter of the law.”

Had the seizure occurred this year, however, it’s unlikely the government would have taken the case to federal court at all.

In January, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder scaled back the Justice Department’s policy of pursuing civil forfeitures of “adopted” assets seized by state and local law enforcement. If the government prevails in court, it keeps 20 percent of the assets and returns the rest to the agencies that made the seizures.

Holder’s order banned adoptions unless the assets include firearms, ammunition, explosives, child pornography or other property related to public safety.

Civil forfeiture laws allow the government to seize funds from suspected criminals without charging them with a crime.

In the Elko case, Gorman was neither charged nor even cited for a traffic violation.

According to court documents, a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper first stopped Gorman for driving too slow in the fast lane, but after Gorman refused to let him search the motor home, he was allowed to go on his way.

The trooper then arranged for an Elko County sheriff’s deputy with a drug-sniffing dog to stop Gorman again, and the dog alerted the deputy to something suspicious in the motor home, documents show.

The search turned up no drugs, but the $167,000 was found hidden in various places.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter.

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