DEA Gives Former Marine Back $86,900 Cops Took From Him During A Nevada Traffic Stop Caught On Body Cam
from the one-of-America's-longest-running-scams dept
Because law enforcement just can’t stop taking money from innocent people, here’s another roadside shitshow that has resulted in an attempt to force the government to give back money it flat out stole.
This one has a couple of twists. First, it involves body cameras, so the whole depressing farce can actually be watched as it unfolds. The second twist is the federal government, which arrived (via cell phone) to pitch in with the theft.
This is what happened to Stephen Lara, 16-year military veteran and innocent person, as he traveled through Nevada on his way to visit his daughters in California.
On his drive from Texas to California, a Nevada Highway Patrol officer engineered a reason to pull him over, saying that he passed too closely to a tanker truck. The officer who pulled Stephen over complimented his driving but nevertheless prolonged the stop and asked a series of questions about Stephen’s life and travels. Stephen told the officer that his life savings was in the trunk. Another group of officers arrived, and Stephen gave them permission to search his car. They found a backpack with Stephen’s money, just where he said it would be, along with receipts showing all his bank withdrawals. After a debate amongst the officers, which was recorded on body camera footage, they decided to seize his life savings.
That’s the short version. That’s also the sanitized version. The longer, more excruciating depiction of these events can be seen here:
His motion [PDF] for the return of the $86,900 the NHP took from him goes into greater detail, including the fact that the officers left him stranded on the road without even enough money to finish his trip to California.
It explains the origin of the cash:
Lara made the trip with the $86,900 in cash that is the subject of this motion—his life savings, which he was holding in the hopes of purchasing a house for his daughters. Lara has kept his savings in cash for as long as he can remember, although all his income goes through banks before he withdraws it. Lara took his savings with him on the trip because there had been several property crimes in his parents’ neighborhood, and his parents planned to be out of town for a portion of the time Lara was away; thus, he did not feel comfortable leaving that much money behind.
The huge stack of receipts — which can be seen on the officer’s body cam footage — also explains the origin of the cash, all of which was traceable directly to Lara’s bank accounts and from those accounts to the sources of income.
The traffic stop was obviously pretextual. The officer who pulled him over didn’t even bother following up on the alleged violation (following too closely) and went directly into asking a bunch of questions about drugs, contraband, cash, etc. Lara was upfront about the cash. He even gave the officer permission to search the vehicle.
When the trooper saw the cash, he called in another officer to help him seize it. And that officer brought a dog, which made everything ok.
Then, a sergeant from NHP arrived. He had Lara’s money placed in a nearby field and instructed the officer who pulled Lara over to have his dog search for it. The dog found the money and purportedly alerted to the presence of drugs. The sergeant then ordered that the money be seized. At Lara’s urging, the officers inspected his ATM receipts and even took pictures. The money, bundled together using his daughter’s hair ties, was placed in an evidence bag. Although no DEA agent was present, Lara was given a receipt telling him to contact a DEA agent. Lara was then told he was free to go.
The drug dog was the permission slip — the thing that told the officers they could ignore all the documentation bundled with the cash. Of course it would alert on cash. Almost all cash in circulation has drug residue on it. And it’s not like this fact isn’t well known.
The other permission slip was the DEA agent. Although the agent was never on the scene, he was on the phone with the trooper (these conversations can be heard in the body cam recordings). The NHP trooper sought a federal adoption of the seizure via the DEA, making it easier to avoid state limitations or restrictions on cash seizures.
The money was taken from Lara on February 19, 2021. Calls to DEA were unfruitful but finally forced the agency to issue a notice of seizure on April 5, 2021. As the Institute for Justice (which is representing Lara) pointed out, this delay violated federal civil asset forfeiture law. The DEA had 90 days to either give the money back or proceed with the forfeiture. It chose to do neither.
But even if the DEA had done what it was supposed to, this would still be bullshit. There was likely no legal basis for the stop. There was no reason for the extended questioning. And there was definitely no reason — given the complete lack of suspicion expressed by any officer involved that Lara was involved in anything illegal — for the NHP and DEA to walk off with Lara’s money.
The good news is public pressure works. The Institute for Justice has been instrumental in forcing the DEA to hand back money it has stolen from innocent people. The problem is, of course, that not every case gets this sort of effective representation. And in many cases, the amount is big enough to matter to the people it’s taken from, but not big enough to justify spending the amount of money needed to force the government to return ill-gotten gains.
In this case, it worked. Shortly before Lara’s story went national, the DEA agreed to return his money to him. Along with the IJ, Lara is suing to have the Nevada’s forfeiture laws found unconstitutional. But beyond the return of the money, securing a copy of footage of the stop is a crucial win. It shows exactly how these stops unfold and the machinations of law enforcement officers to take cash from people they allege are criminals, but who are apparently not criminal enough to charge with any crimes.