Highway Patrol Officers Take Veteran’s Life Savings

Nevada Highway Patrol officers take veteran's life savings.
Stephen Lara – Institute for Justice


Nevada Highway Patrol Officers Abuse Asset Forfeiture Ability

(NV) – Law enforcement has the right to seize any property that they believe has been obtained through illegal means. This is known as asset forfeiture or civil forfeiture. It would be understandable if the seizure of property came after a guilty verdict in a criminal case, but by law, that isn’t necessary. Property can be taken if they suspect it’s been acquired through illegal means. Many people lose their property without charges ever being filed against them. This is very shaky ground and gets more so when you realize that the agency who is confiscating the property, benefits from that confiscation. They can get as much as 80% of the value.

Traffic Stop an Excuse to Seize Property

On February 19, 2021, Stephen Lara, a marine veteran, was traveling to go see his family. He was pulled over by a Nevada Highway Patrol officer for a traffic violation. This is the excuse used to stop him. Per the video, Lara was driving too close to the vehicle in front of him. The police officer also thinks it’s strange that Lara is driving under the speed limit.

From the beginning, this doesn’t make sense. If Lara is driving too close, then it’s obvious there is a vehicle in front of him. That means that vehicle is basically dictating how fast Lara can go. So why would Lara’s driving speed raise suspicion in the officer? Why wasn’t he worried about the truck in front that was going below the limit and blocking Lara from going faster?

The officer acts nice and Lara does all he can to cooperate in good faith. Unfortunately, in doing so, Lara opened himself up to a ton of problems. Lara responded that he did have a large amount of cash when asked. He then made the ultimate mistake of allowing them to search his car. The officer finds over $87,000 along with bank receipts showing Lara had withdrawn the money. From that point on, it’s obvious the officers intend to confiscate the money even though they don’t have any legal grounds to do so.

Drug Enforcement Administration Brought In

The way an agency gets money is by contacting the DEA so they can adopt the case. This is referred to as a federal adoption. Per the Institute for Justice,

He knows that even thought Stephen did nothing wrong, the DEA will adopt the seizure of his cash and return a portion of the money to the Highway Patrol for the favor of giving them the case. 

The agent is unable to come but speaks to a sergeant. The sergeant makes it plain that he will be taking the money even though there is still no justification for it. It is not illegal to carry cash and the sergeant knows that. He still looks for a reason to confiscate the money. The sergeant questions why Stephen doesn’t trust banks, which has no bearing on anything.

Finally, the  sergeant decides to have the dog sniff for drugs on the money. The dog alerts to the money. This is a poor indicator of the money being used in an illegal drug transactions. Money passes through many hands, anyone of which could have had drugs on them. Studies have shown that 67% to as much as 100% of money has traces of drugs on them. Any officer trained to used a drug sniffing dog should be aware of that. They don’t seem to care. Their eyes were on the money and what they could use to justify taking it.

Veteran Left Penniless on Side of Road

The officers take all of Stephen Lara’s money and give him a receipt. He is told he can contact the DEA and show it’s his money so he can get it back. But everyone knows how hard it is to get the government to admit they were wrong. Lara has nothing left to buy food, gas, or any other necessities. His brother has to send him money so Lara can continue on his way to them.

Civil Lawyers Step In to Help

Stephen Lara fought in Iraq and Afghanistan only to come home to be victimized by law enforcement. He tried to get his money back for six months, but ended up having to file a civil lawsuit against the DEA. That lawsuit was handled by the civil lawyers at the Institute of Justice. The Washington Post got the story also. With pressure coming from several directions, the DEA returned Stephen’s money to him. Many others haven’t been so fortunate.

Stephen and the Institute for Justice have an additional civil lawsuit filed against the Nevada Highway Patrol to try to stop this practice so no one else is hurt.

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