J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · September 1, 2021

Last February, while driving down a Nevada highway on the way to visit his daughters, Stephen Lara was robbed in plain sight. But his assailants were not ordinary criminals—they were police officers from Nevada Highway Patrol.

Using a controversial legal tactic called civil forfeiture, the officers fabricated a reason to stop Lara, detained him for more than an hour, and eventually left with his entire life savings. The officers never alleged he’d done anything illegal—let alone, charged him with any crime—and yet they left him penniless, standing on the side of the road.

Stephen is just one of the latest victims of policing for profit—the unconstitutional practice of using civil forfeiture to seize and keep innocent Americans’ cash, cars, and other property. Under civil forfeiture, police and prosecutors can take ordinary Americans’ property without ever charging them with a crime. 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.

Stephen, who is a decorated Marine Corps veteran who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, is no stranger to a fight, and so today he has partnered with the Institute for Justice to file a lawsuit against the Nevada Highway Patrol to put meaningful constitutional constraints on civil forfeiture and to end the abuse of “equitable sharing” once and for all.

“Carrying around cash is not a crime,” said Wesley Hottot, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represents Stephen. “Stephen did nothing wrong. He isn’t charged with any crime and the government isn’t even willing to defend this seizure in court. Innocent people shouldn’t lose their property like this. It should be clear that civil forfeiture is inherently abusive, and with this lawsuit, we hope to put an end to legally-condoned highway robberies.”

Stephen’s ordeal started on a stretch of highway in northern Nevada. Stephen was driving from Texas to a small town near Reno to visit his two daughters. Body- and dash-cam video of the incident shows a Nevada Highway Patrol officer pulling up behind Stephen and following him for a time. When Stephen changes lanes behind a tanker truck, the officer says, “there you go,” and proceeds to pull him over. The officer says he’s pulling Stephen over to “make sure everything is okay.” The stop was a pretext to ask Stephen about his trip, and “a bunch of silly questions,” like “[are there] any large amounts of United States currency in the vehicle.”

Since his days in the Marines, Stephen has kept his savings in cash. He had saved enough money to achieve one of his most important goals: to buy a home for himself and his daughters. So when the officer asked him about carrying cash, Stephen said “yes.” When the officer asked to search his car, he said “yes.” And when the officer asked about the source of the cash, Stephen showed him over two years’ worth of bank receipts. Stephen did everything he was told, and answered every question he was asked.

More officers arrived and searched Stephen’s car. They found no drugs, no guns, no contraband, no nothing. Just the money, exactly where Stephen told them it would be. A sergeant arrived and ordered the officers to use a police dog to sniff the money. The dog allegedly alerted to the money—something that is common for all U.S. currency—but there was no other evidence whatsoever of any wrongdoing. The officer who initiated the stop thought Stephen was innocent and should be let go, but his sergeant overrode him and ordered the officers to seize Stephen’s life savings: $86,900.

“It never occurred to me just how vast and immoral civil forfeiture was until I was robbed of my hard-earned money on the side of the road by a bunch of rogue pirates with badges and guns,” said Lara. “Police officers have a duty to protect and serve the public, not rob them of their life savings. I fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve seen abuses by government firsthand. I never thought I’d see it in my own country.”

The officers knew they had no evidence of any crime, but they took Stephen’s money anyway. Using a process called an “adoption,” the officers called a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent to see if he could process the seizure. By processing the seizure through the DEA, the state highway patrol could receive an effortless 80 percent kickback through the federal government’s “equitable sharing” program.

In 2015, then-Attorney General Eric Holder restricted when federal agencies could adopt seizures from state and local police. Following that, the number of forfeitures adopted by the federal government plummeted. But just two years later, in 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions reinstated the ability to adopt forfeitures. Since then, the number of forfeitures adopted from state and local police has increased more than six-fold from its low.

Months have passed and the DEA has missed the deadlines set by federal law for it to either return Stephen’s money or file a case explaining what the government believes Stephen did wrong. The DEA has done neither. Despite that, the DEA continues to hold on to Stephen’s money.

“Civil forfeiture creates a perverse profit incentive that turns ordinary law-abiding cops into legally-sanctioned robbers,” said IJ Attorney Ben Field. “The right thing to do now—and indeed, the only legal thing to do—is for the government to return Stephen’s money immediately, with interest, and with no strings attached.”

Stephen is only one of thousands of Americans whose property has been seized using civil forfeiture. In 2018 alone, 42 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Departments of Justice and the Treasury forfeited over $3 billion, according to IJ’s landmark report, Policing for Profit. And each year, the federal government pays out hundreds of millions of dollars to state and local agencies participating in the equitable sharing program—$333.8 million in 2019 alone and more than $8.8 billion in total from 2000 to 2019.