Big Win for Accountability at Nevada Supreme Court 

Ben Field
Ben Field  ·  April 1, 2023

IJ prides itself on being nimble and taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. This is just such a story. 

In August 2021, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of Marine veteran Stephen Lara, whose life savings were seized in a bogus roadside stop by the Nevada Highway Patrol, which then handed the money over to the federal government in an illegal end-run around Nevada’s forfeiture laws. Rather than answer the lawsuit, the government successfully asked the court to stay the case while the Nevada Supreme Court considered a different case that asked whether people could sue for damages directly under the Nevada Constitution when their rights are violated. 

That case, Mack v. Williams, had flown under the radar and came to the Nevada Supreme Court through a circuitous route. Rather than bemoan the unnecessary delay in our Nevada civil forfeiture case, the team recognized that the speed bump provided a golden opportunity both to defend our client’s interest and to advance principles at the heart of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability.  

As the federal courts have been retreating from providing remedies against violations of the U.S. Constitution by federal officials, IJ has been fighting for states to move in the opposite direction and give robust constitutional remedies to their citizens. But Nevada’s high court had not yet decided whether the state’s constitution guaranteed citizens the right to seek damages against state government officials who violate their rights. Now, the government was asking the Nevada Supreme Court to hold the state constitution did not and that victims of constitutional violations would instead have to hope that the Nevada Legislature would create such a right. 

The Nevada civil forfeiture team sprang into action and promptly filed an amicus brief asking the court to hold both that the Nevada Constitution guaranteed a right to seek damages for constitutional violations and that defenses like qualified immunity did not apply to those suits. When the court heard the case in May 2022, the IJ team participated directly, providing the bulk of the oral argument on behalf of IJ itself and our client Stephen. 

The Nevada Supreme Court issued its opinion in late December, completely vindicating IJ’s position. The court held that when Nevada government officials violate the rights against unreasonable search and seizure guaranteed by the state constitution, the victims can sue for damages. The court’s logic should readily extend to Nevada’s entire declaration of rights. And, to boot, the court rejected qualified immunity for these claims. 

The court’s ruling paves the way to vindicate constitutional rights both in Nevada and nationwide. In Nevada, the ruling ensures that our client Stephen’s case can go forward and that all Nevadans will have a remedy when the government violates the state constitution. The victory also provides an important precedent for IJ to cite in other states that have not yet ruled on whether their constitutions provide similar protections and remedies. And you can count on us doing exactly that—across all our litigation pillars—to ensure that whenever the government violates a state constitutional right, there will be a meaningful state constitutional remedy.

Ben Field is an IJ attorney. 

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