Tuesday, March 18, 2014


On Friday, the district attorney’s office in Humboldt County, Nevada, agreed to return the $50,000 that had been seized from Tan Nguyen during a traffic stop on September 23, 2013. Nguyen had never been charged with a crime, much less convicted of anything—Humboldt County sheriff’s deputy Lee Dove pulled him over for allegedly going three miles over the speed limit, then searched his car without permission (though the cops claim consent was given) and found what Nguyen said was gambling winnings. The 37-year-old California resident’s luck clearly ran out when he was stopped by Dove, however, and according to his lawsuit, Nguyen was given a choice—give up his money or try to get home without his vehicle.

This wasn’t an isolated incident or a mistake on behlaf of the cops. In a photo that the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department put on Facebook (and has since deleted), Dove posed proudly with a police dog and the $50,000 he had seized. The officer, who is also accused of taking $13,800 and a handgun from another driver in a similarly flimsy traffic-stop scenario, is presumably feeling less puffed-up now. On Friday, the local district attorney’s office promised that that driver, Nguyen, and another person who had $2,400 taken, would get their cash back, and that forfeiture policy would be reevaluated.

Is it good that the DA is checking on these stories? Sure. Are these Nevada horror stories particularly surprising? Not if you know the bizarre state of asset-forfeiture laws.

Civil asset-forfeiture laws vary, but like many other bad laws they’re generally used to take money and property from individuals suspected of drug crimes. According to Nick Sibilla of the Institute for Justice (whom I briefly worked with at Reason magazine), 37 states mandate that the property owner prove that his or her property is innocent of any criminal ties in order to get it back. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning law firm that has often fought asset-forfeiture abuse, rates Nevada’s law a D+—under the state’s current rules, police departments get to keep 100 percent of the profits from sales of seized property, and cops need only show “clear and convincing evidence” of that property’s connection to a crime. That’s “a higher standard than many states,” according to the Institute for Justice, “but still lower than the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. But the burden falls on you to prove that you are an innocent owner by showing that the act giving rise to the forfeiture was done without your knowledge, consent, or willful blindness.”

Often cash—usually anything over $10,000—is deemed by the cops suspicious and inherently tied to drug trafficking. That makes it tough for people, like high-stakes gamblers, who tend to have a bunch of bills lying around. Worse still, forfeiture incentivizes departments to continue the failed war on drugs, as large chunks of the profits from seized assets go back to local cops. Sibilla notes that seizures by sheriff’s departments in other states have been in the millions—including a whopping $20 million taken in two decades by Sheriff Bill Smith in Camden County, Georgia.

These Nevada cases—though they ended happily thanks to lawsuits and bad publicity for the cops involved—reek of theft and intimidation on the part of the police. But sadly, they’re not unique.

Full article: http://www.vice.com/ … ing-you-with-a-crime

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