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EDITORIAL: ‘We’re going to seize it today’

It isn’t every day that a major heist is caught on camera from start to finish. That’s what makes the video of the February incident on a Northern Nevada highway so startling. Let’s hope state lawmakers pay attention.

Last week, the Institute For Justice released body camera footage (www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkeS_0NQUZs) documenting how Nevada state troopers shook down a former Marine combat veteran during a traffic stop. Stephen Lara was traveling from Texas to California to see his two daughters when he was pulled over for following a semi-truck too closely.

Less than two hours later, he was left standing on the side of the road wondering what to do next after law enforcement officials took his life savings of $90,000 as part of a civil forfeiture action. Mr. Lara was never arrested nor charged with any criminal activity.

The video reveals how this shady ruse played out after the dubious traffic stop.

When the trooper reaches the vehicle, he attempts to disarm Mr. Lara with flattery. “Applaud you on your driving. You drive great,” he says before asking him to get out of the car. He then begins his patter intended to spot inconsistencies or suspicious behavior. Mr. Lara, however, is exceedingly polite. The trooper then gets to the point and the following exchange takes place.

Trooper: “This is going to sound kinda weird. Part of my job out here is I do what’s called highway interdiction. I look for people that are smuggling contraband through our state, across the country. Weapons, humans, drugs, illicit currency, things like that. Anything in the vehicle I should be aware of?”

Mr. Lara: “Nothing.”

Trooper: “OK. No firearms? No explosives.”

Mr. Lara: “No.”

Trooper: “OK. Are there any drugs in the vehicle?”

Mr. Lara: “No.”

Trooper: “Cocaine?”

Mr. Lara: “I don’t do drugs.”

Trooper: “Yeah, I gotta ask all these silly questions, right.”

Mr. Lara: “There’s no drugs, there’s no weapons in the vehicle.”

Trooper: “OK. Any large amounts of United States currency in the vehicle?”

Mr. Lara: “Yes.”

Trooper: “OK. What’s a large amount of U.S. currency to you?

Mr. Lara: “Anything over $10,000.”

Trooper: “OK. So is there over $10,000 in there?”

Mr. Lara: “Yes.”

Trooper: “OK. How much money you got in there?”

Mr. Lara. “A lot.”

Trooper: “OK.”

Mr. Lara: “I don’t trust banks, so I keep my own money.”

Trooper: “OK. Fair enough, fair enough. Would you give me permission to search your vehicle today?”

A bit later, the trooper calls a federal DEA agent, and eventually the trooper’s sergeant shows up at the scene. He, too, consults the DEA before deciding to bring in a drug-sniffing dog. When the dog reacts to some of the money, the game moves forward. Never mind that traces of drug residue can be found on a majority of U.S. currency, studies have found.

“I believe they’re drug proceeds … We’re going to seize it today,” the sergeant tells Mr. Lara, “but that doesn’t mean it’s the final judgment on it. It’s going to go through the DEA, OK. So the DEA will contact you.”

Mr. Lara remains polite to the end. “I just want to let you know I know you’re just doing your job,” he says. “That money I worked real hard for. That money I have in my jacket is only a few dollars. I have no money to pay for my kids meals, my hotel or even to get that car back to Texas. I know you’re just doing your job. But I don’t know what to do because you took all my money. So I’m probably going to be stuck here.”

Mr. Lara got his cash back months later but only after the government backed down when The Washington Post reported on the lawsuit he filed in federal court.

Mr. Lara’s case isn’t unusual. Under civil forfeiture — a tactic originally intended to separate drug kingpins from their ill-gotten gains — law enforcement officials seize hundreds of millions in homes, cars, cash and other valuables each year from people who are never arrested for wrongdoing. In many cases, police agencies are rewarded with some or all of the proceeds from such seizures. Abuses have been well-documented.

“If this could happen to me as a combat veteran who served overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Mr. Lara said, “this can happen to anybody.”

He’s correct. Nevada should join the handful of other states that now demand a criminal conviction before prosecutors may initiate forfeiture proceedings. And for those Nevada lawmakers who are afraid they’ll be labeled soft on crime if they embrace such reform: Watch the video.

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