WASHINGTON — “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”—Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
In February of this year, Stephen Lara was pulled over by the Nevada Highway Patrol (NHP) on a trip from Texas to see his daughters in California.
After over an hour and a half, Lara was let go because he had done nothing wrong nor was suspected of any crime.
But Lara, a decorated Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, was let go sans his $86,900 life savings which was seized by the police under Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF), a practice in place since the 1980s. The sole reason for the seizure was it’s suspicious to carry that amount of cash, according to the police.
The Institute for Justice (IJ) took up the case for Lara. It describes CAF: “Civil forfeiture flips ‘innocent until proven guilty’ on its head, and forces property owners to hire an attorney and prove their innocence in court to get their property back. Worse still, the federal government pays state officers to abuse civil forfeiture through a program called ‘equitable sharing’ in which state officers can seize money, hand it over to the federal government to do all the work forfeiting it, and then get most of the forfeited money returned as a kickback.”
The IJ obtained bodycam footage of the stop which is included in a video where Lara and Melania Hildreth, with IJ, describe the incident. As is stated, Lara got his money back but not until the IJ filed a lawsuit and The Washington Post called the NHP and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for comment.
As seen in the bodycam footage, Lara was stopped for an education campaign, not under any suspicion of a crime. Lara is completely cooperative even asking probing questions from the officer, and he admits he had a large sum of cash which he said he keeps because he doesn’t trust banks.
Lara unfortunately allowed the police to search his vehicle, and officers are clearly heard colluding in the video to figure out a way to seize the cash despite knowing no crime has been admitted. The police confirm to Lara carrying cash is not illegal.
Nevada, however, has stricter laws on the book prohibiting such CAFs which is why the NHP calls the DEA to do a federal adoption.
“He knows that even though 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,” Hildreth says.
Hildreth adds: “Here’s how an adoption works. When state or local police seize cash, cars or other property, federal law enforcement takes over the forfeiture. The federal agency does all the work and kicks back up to 80% of the proceeds to the state agency that seized the property.”
The NHP brings out a drug dog, as Hildreth says to find “legal justification” to take the money. The dog finds the money, and why wouldn’t it? After all, the vast majority of currency, the government estimating between 67-100%, contain trace amounts of cocaine. The U.S. Court of Appeals from the Ninth Circuit actually prohibits seizure based solely on a drug sniffing dog in a 1994 case.
“That money, I worked really hard for,” Lara tells the NHP officer. “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.”
Lara added: “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 unless somebody sends me some money. I have no way of providing for my children, or getting back to Texas.”
In an IJ report, Policing for Profit, $68.8 billion has been seized and dispersed through what are called “equitable sharing” funds since 2000, and that’s based on only what is reported as the IJ states “many jurisdictions fail to provide a full accounting of forfeiture activity.” The worst offending states are California, Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas.
Reason Magazine has reported extensively on CAF cases over the years, and in most of the cases the victims of the government’s theft have still not had their property or cash returned with battles going on for year as the government turns due process on its head forcing the victims to prove their innocence.
The Free Thought Project reported on a CAF case from this week when a woman had her cash seized at an airport in Texas. The police, who do not even mention any crime being committed, even bragged on social media about stealing the money.
For years, a small few of elected officials have attempted to get the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act voted on. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Angus King (I-Maine and Mike Lee (R-Utah) spearheaded the effort last year in the Senate. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Michigan) has introduced the FAIR Act this year which has 33 co-sponsors, 18 Republicans and 15 Democrats.
This should be an easy one which takes no time, yet the fight goes on. It’s time to stop this government theft for good.
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