Court Says Gov't Has To Give Back $167,000 It Seized During A String Of 4th Amendment Violations

from the rare-loss-for-civil-asset-forfeiture dept

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has no good news for the lying law enforcement officers who were hoping to walk off with $167,000 of someone else’s money. Two years ago, the district court ruled in favor of Straughn Gorman, who was subjected to two lengthy traffic stops in less than an hour by officers hoping to help themselves to cash he was carrying in his RV.

After stopping Gorman for a non-violation (driving too slow in the left lane), State Trooper Greg Monroe spent roughly a half-hour trying to obtain consent to search Gorman’s RV. His reasonable suspicion? Gorman’s use of the word “chick” to describe the girlfriend he was driving to visit and the supposedly “rehearsed” aspects of his employment history. Trooper Monroe performed an extensive background check on Gorman while hoping to prolong the stop until a K-9 unit could be deployed, but even his non-routine call to an El Paso DEA records center failed to drag out the traffic stop long enough for it to arrive.

All Monroe knew when he finally let Gorman go is Gorman had at least $2,000 on him. Monroe wasn’t going to let this money get away, so he called up another officer from another agency and “relayed his suspicions.” He also told the other officer (Deputy Doug Fisher) to bring a drug-sniffing dog with him. Fisher wasn’t assigned to patrol the highway Gorman was traveling on, but decided that would be the best use of his time.

Fisher pulled over Gorman after his tire touched the fog line a couple of times. Another records check was run, even though Fisher already knew what results to expect, thanks to Trooper Monroe’s heads-up. The drug dog supposedly alerted near a right-rear compartment of the RV. Gorman gave the deputy permission to search that area, but that wasn’t good enough for Fisher. Fisher said the alert gave him permission to search the entire RV. This resulted in the discovery of $167,000 in cash, which Fisher took. Gorman was (again) free to go. Gorman was never charged with any criminal act, much less given a citation for the supposed moving violations that predicated the two stops.

The government appealed the lower court’s decision, which gave Gorman back his $167,000 plus legal fees. It raised a number of defenses for its actions (which included the state’s attorney omitting several facts about the two searches from its affidavits), but the Appeals Court is no more receptive of this deception and deceit than the lower court. From the decision [PDF]:

We hold that the search of Gorman’s vehicle following the coordinated traffic stops violated the Constitution and affirm the district court’s order granting Gorman’s motion to suppress. Gorman’s first roadside detention was unreasonably prolonged in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The dog sniff and the search of Gorman’s vehicle, in turn, followed directly in an unbroken causal chain of events from that constitutional violation. As a result, the seized currency is the “fruit of the poisonous tree” and was properly suppressed under the exclusionary rule.


The coordinated action at issue in Gorman’s case offers a prime illustration of the value of the “fruit of the poisonous tree” analysis. The analysis allows us to see the officers’ conduct in Gorman’s case as what it is: a single integrated effort by police to circumvent the Constitution by making two coordinated stops. When the result of one stop is communicated and, on that basis, another stop is planned and implemented, the coordinated stops become, in effect, one integrated stop that must as a whole satisfy the Constitution’s requirements. An illegal police venture cannot be made legal simply by dividing it into two coordinated stops.

This won’t be the only time officers behave this way. The Supreme Court’s Rodriguez decision stated traffic stops are over once the “objective is complete.” This forces officers to be a bit more creative if they’re engaged in fishing expeditions without reasonable suspicion to extend the stop. One “solution” is shown above: have a second law enforcement officer initiate a stop to prolong the roadside investigation without triggering the protections of Rodriguez. Another “solution” is to have K-9 units perform stops or be in close proximity, thus lowering the chances of a court finding the stop to be “prolonged.”

Both of these solutions are violations of Rodriguez, even if some courts will award the government points for effort. Fortunately, there are a few courts adhering to the intent of the decision: it’s not the length of the Fourth Amendment violation, it’s the violation itself.

Unfortunately, anything cash-related tends to make officers bypass their better judgment and push the edge of the Fourth Amendment envelope. The good news — at least for Straugh Gorman — is he’s getting all of his cash back, plus legal fees. That it took more than two years for this to happen is unfortunate, but to be expected — especially in a legal system that’s stacked against victims of civil asset forfeiture.

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Comments on “Court Says Gov't Has To Give Back $167,000 It Seized During A String Of 4th Amendment Violations”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Texas traffic laws [was Left lane violation]

           When did that stop being a violation in Texas?

Never as far as I know but he was never cited.

From the very first sentence in the second paragraph of Judge Reinhardt’s actual opinion (p.3 in PDF):

In January 2013, a police officer stopped Straughn
Gorman on Interstate-80 outside Wells, Nevada . . .

(Emphasis added.)

Isma'il says:

Re: Re: Too slow in left lane

In some states it is against the law to “set up camp” in the left lane. Washington State is now issuing fines for doing so, and some states DO have signs on the side of the interstate that DO read, “Keep right except when passing.” I’ve travelled to some of them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Too slow in left lane

I am not sorry that he got pulled over. Just upset that the Police obviously broke the law to perform an illegal search and still got away with it. They almost got away with grand theft property too.

Unless that $167k was the fine for being a fuckhole in the left lane things went too far.

Now… sadly I might not be too upset with a crippling fine for being a fuckhead in the left lane either. Decisions Decisions!

Anonymous Coward says:

Personally, the fault I place squarely in the hands of these idiot drivers who are dumb enough to travel with more than $50-100 in cash. never EVER travel through another state with a large amount of cash. If you do, then you deserve to have it seized.

Place that money on a debit card, prepaid card, savings or checking account. They can’t seize it or access it without your approval.

As many times as someone gets their cash seized, you would think that drivers would start getting smarter. Instead, this just proves how stupid these morons are for carrying that much cash with them.

That’s like parking outside a store, leaving your keys in the ignition and begging for someone to steal your car.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I dearly hope you’re just trolling, as the alternative seems to be placing the blame of police robbing anyone they run across on the victims. To say that this is an absurd position is putting it mildly.

Members of the public should never have to take special steps to avoid being robbed by law enforcement, and if they don’t and are then it’s hardly their fault for being robbed.

John Peeler says:

Criminal Conduct

In two hundred years the first police (British “Peelers” ala John Peeler, the founder) have morphed from unarmed stick carriers on foot patrol (with a whistle) to, in many (most?) instances predators, thugs, robbers, and serial killers.

So many so-called laws that regulate all aspects of one’s life re: what they grow, smoke, or whatever (or think), so that everything is an “us vs. them” situation, with cops in schools cuffing kids and conditioning them to life in a lockdown society, and funneling them to either the military industrial complex or the prison industrial complex (prisons for profit), with a few skimmed off the top (top equals children of the cash donating privileged class, who ancestors were likely robber barons) to become the next generation of “law makers”.

I would rather take my chances with the baddies via vigilantes and group travel than run the legal gauntlet we now are subjected to.

Time to rethink this whole mess (and a lot more).

Ishtiaq (profile) says:

No sense

Off topic I know, but tis article made no sense to me. Until I finally twigged that in the United States you drive on the opposite side of the road to us. (I live in England). I obviously need more beer…

I do think those police officers behaved appallimgly but to carry that amount of cash? Imagine having your car stolen or God forbid having an accident and the car setting on fire.

If I watched that amount of money burning I would WANT to die! And suppose the money was a loan? That had to be paid back? Words fail…

Cheers… Ishy

David says:

Re: No sense

I do think those police officers behaved appallimgly but to carry that amount of cash? Imagine having your car stolen or God forbid having an accident and the car setting on fire.

I’m with you there. But I consider it sad I also have to imagine police acting like an organized crime ring but with government backing and pensions, and that’s the more likely option to actually have to deal with.

We pay the police in order to feel more rather than less safe carrying cash around. And "at least you are more likely to survive being robbed at gun point" is getting less convincingly true as well.

Daydream says:

The courts have a secret 'Anger-at-the-Police Gauge'...

…that tells them how likely it is that members of the general public are going to just shoot the police on sight, consequences be damned.

Whenever the gauge fills too much, they make a ruling like this to lead the commoners to think that reform is happening and that they don’t have to gun down a bunch of uniformed thugs.

(I hope I’m joking, it’d suck awfully if the courts were making these once-in-a-while rulings to stop the public blowing up rather than out of any real desire to rein in civil asset robbery.)

NotEnough says:

Prison time

I want both officers to go to prison for theft and conspiracy to commit theft. They have different names for theft depending on the amount stolen, and this is a fairly serious amount.

If he was travelling across state lines at any point of his journey, then it’s a federal crime what the officers have done.

They need to go to the slammer for a long, long time.

Rekrul says:

While I’m glad that he got his money back and that the cops weren’t allowed to keep it, I’m kind of disappointed at the ruling. He only got his money back because the stop was ruled illegal, rather than it being declared wrong for the cops to take his money in the first place. What would have happened if the first cop had a drug dog with him? It would have been a much more uphill battle to get any of his money back, if he ever did.

Anonymous Coward says:

senate bill 1241
Co-signers: Grassley, Feinstein, Cornyn, and Whitehouse. The bill has been referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.

If this gets passed the man in this story, or any person carrying more than 10k in cash or who holds “unregistered” crypto currency or prepaid device could go to jail for 10 years and have all of their assets seized.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: senate bill 1241

Don’t forget this bit:

“(d) Whoever has in his control, custody, or possession any obligation or security of the United States or any foreign government from which the ink or other distinctive counterfeit deterrent has been completely or partially removed, except under the authority of the Secretary of the Treasury, is guilty of a class B felony.”.

So if someone pulls the security thread out of a $20 bill and spends it, then you receive it in change, you’re guilty of a felony for possessing an obligation or security of the United States from which a counterfeit deterrent has been removed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: senate bill 1241

So if someone pulls the security thread out of a $20 bill and spends it,

Or if the bill has a mark or smudge on it that obscures some micro-printing. Or a bunch of other things, also.

It sounds to me like the real objective is to make handling cash so dangerous that everybody switches to bank cards, with the bankers getting a cut of every transaction.

Personanongrata says:

The Invisible Hand of the Seen and Unseen*

Court Says Gov’t Has To Give Back $167,000 It Seized During A String Of 4th Amendment Violations

How much did the government squander in trying to steal Straughn Gorman’s money?

Italicized/bold text below was excerpted from page 12 (first paragraph last sentence) of the above court decision USA v. Gorman and $167,00.00 in cash:

In a separate order, the court awarded Gorman $146,938.50 in attorney’s fees.

Gorman’s legal fees alone almost exceed the value of the money the government was trying to steal.

If the courts, district attorney, highway brigands (ie the police) salaries and overhead were factored in the total sum squandered it would exceed the value of the money the government attempted to pilfer.

Just like a government run operation they can’t even steal with out losing money.

(*) Adam Smith and Frederic Bastiat

DarkKnight (profile) says:


El Paso Texas? Duly noted. Florida. Texas. Where else? So, driving too slow, or driving too fast and these crooked cops stop and basically rob the public? How the HELL do they get to just seize cash and let the driver go? Note to self- Have very little cash on hand, leaving no cause for civil rights violations. Cops get to shoot and kill and get away with it, due to “fearing for their safety”. They get to rob, due to whatever they like. Can’t trust the cops. Can’t trust anyone in Government. Who can we trust?

Simon Prophet (user link) says:

civil asset forfeiture

Why don’t the cops just stop anyone and instead of looking for suspicious money rather just give the guy a $100K fine for being a suspect. This might mean government will have to take the suspected offender to court to force payment but an order to seize assets on account of not paying the fine might prove to be more lucrative than the fine itself. The government can easily do a check to see who has assets and who doesn’t. Those that don’t have assets walk away free because there’s no point to pursue what doesn’t exist but just think anyone who has property becomes a bread basket for the civil asset forfeiture police. It’s a great system to make America great again.

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