Dan King
Dan King · January 12, 2024

RENO, Nev.—On Thursday, the Second Judicial District Court for the State of Nevada denied the state’s motion to dismiss a Marine veteran’s lawsuit challenging the state’s civil forfeiture laws, after his life savings were taken through the controversial process nearly three years ago. Thursday’s decision means Stephen Lara, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), can continue his legal challenge to the state’s forfeiture scheme, which allows police to take people’s property without showing that they committed a crime. 

“The court’s ruling is a major first step toward justice for Stephen and all victims of unjust civil forfeiture laws,” said IJ Attorney Ben Field. “If the government wants to take your money or property, it should first have to prove you did something wrong. Nevada law enforcement should have to follow the Nevada Constitution.”  

In February 2021, Stephen was pulled over on a Nevada highway on his way to visit his daughters. The officers who pulled him over never alleged he did anything wrong, and Stephen cooperated throughout the ordeal. However, using civil forfeiture, the officers were able to detain Stephen for more than an hour and take his life savings from him. He was left penniless on the side of the highway. The Nevada Highway Patrol (NHP) then used a controversial tactic known as the equitable sharing program to send Stephen’s money to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), with the expectation that the DEA would circumvent Nevada law to forfeit the money using more government-friendly federal law and then kick back the lion’s share for the NHP to use however it wanted. 

Stephen eventually got his money back from the DEA after he teamed up with IJ in September 2021 to file a lawsuit which gained national media attention, but only after he had lost his life savings for the better part of a year. While his claims against the DEA are now moot, Thursday’s decision guarantees that all of his claims against the NHP will be heard on the merits.  

Stephen’s claims include: 

  • It violates due process for law enforcement to seize property for civil forfeiture when they stand to profit from those very forfeitures; 
  • Cash is not a crime, and simply carrying your money in cash does not give law enforcement probable cause to seize it; 
  • Civil forfeiture victims are entitled to prompt post-seizure hearings to force the government to prove it has a valid basis to hold the seized property; and 
  • State law-enforcement officers can’t circumvent their own state’s forfeiture laws and the protections they give to property owners by using the federal equitable-sharing process instead. 

“I’m very excited that my case can move forward, and I hope that one day we’ll have a final victory that will ensure no Nevadans are subjected to what I was subjected to that day,” said Stephen.