Court Decision Gives Gas To Highway Forfeiture Case

Ben Field
Ben Field  ·  March 1, 2024

Stephen Lara’s life savings were seized from him in February 2021. Nearly three years later, a Nevada court has ruled that he can seek justice for what happened.

Stephen is a Marine veteran who was traveling from Texas to California to spend time with his daughters when he was pulled over outside Reno, Nevada, on a bogus traffic stop. The Nevada Highway Patrol officer asked intrusive questions unrelated to traffic safety, and Stephen honestly told the officer he was traveling with his life savings in cash. The officer didn’t care that Stephen had copious documentation that his money came from his legitimate paychecks and veteran’s benefits. By seizing the money and handing it to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to forfeit—circumventing Nevada’s legal protections for property owners—the highway patrol stood to get up to or as much as 80% of the proceeds. 

Stephen got his money back seven months later, after IJ helped him file a federal lawsuit. But Stephen wanted to make sure this didn’t happen to other people. So he and IJ also sued the Nevada Highway Patrol in state court. 

Yet again, Stephen had to wait. This time, the government pressed pause while an unrelated case made its way to the Nevada Supreme Court to decide whether citizens can sue directly under the Nevada Constitution. IJ represented Stephen as a “friend of the court” in that case, which resulted in a landmark ruling that the Nevada Constitution allows people to sue the government for damages and that those claims are not subject to qualified immunity.

In January 2024, two-and-a-half years after Stephen’s lawsuit began, a judge rejected the highway patrol’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. All of Stephen’s constitutional claims can now move forward against the government’s financially driven forfeitures and its failure to provide prompt hearings to contest seizures. The case also challenges the government’s ability to take property without probable cause, and its use of the federal forfeiture machinery to circumvent Nevada’s property protections. 

Though justice has been delayed for Stephen, he is adamant that—with IJ’s help—it will not be denied.

Ben Field is an IJ attorney. 

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