DEA Returns $87,000 It Helped Nevada Law Enforcement Steal From An Ex-Marine
from the 'everything-checks-out,'-they-said-while-they-helped-themselves-to-his-m dept
Another bullshit forfeiture has attracted national press attention. This one has some added bonuses, like local cops stating on (body cam) that the easiest way to get their hands on the seized money would be to ask the feds to come in.
It’s the usual stuff: a pretextual stop, a bunch of questions unrelated to the alleged violation, and the theft of a person’s money based on nothing more than an officer’s speculation about its origin. (alternate link)
The Nevada trooper first told Stephen Lara the highway patrol was educating drivers “about violations they may not realize they’re committing,” and that he’d been pulled over for following a tanker truck too closely. Eventually the trooper admitted having an ulterior purpose: stopping the smuggling of illegal drugs, weapons and currency as they crossed the state.
Lara — a former Marine who says he was on his way to visit his daughters in Northern California — insisted he was doing none of those things, though he readily admitted he had “a lot” of cash in his car. As he stood on the side of the road, police searched the vehicle, pulling nearly $87,000 in a zip-top bag from Lara’s trunk and insisting a drug-sniffing dog had detected something on the cash.
The drug-sniffing dog was wrong, apparently. Or even if it was right, it was detecting something present on almost all cash in circulation: drug residue. No actual drugs were found in Lara’s car.
What was found was $87,000 in cash, but $87,000 supported by a stack of receipts from ATMs, showing Lara had pulled this cash from his own accounts. That lined up with Lara’s story, which the Highway Patrol didn’t even find unbelievable. It also lines up with comments from someone unlikely to burnish the reputation of someone who is (allegedly) $18,000 behind on child support payments. Matt Zapotosky of the Washington Post tracked down Lara’s ex-wife, Kimberly Olson, who confirmed his predilection for having lots of cash on hand.
Olsen said she thought Lara might have kept his money out of the bank in part so he would not have to turn it over in child support. But she noted that even when they were married years ago, Lara “just liked to have his cash” and made frequent withdrawals.
She said Lara did not seem to spend an inordinately high amount but liked to “show off” the cash itself, and spend it on his kids. She said she did not think he was a drug trafficker.
Of course, the trooper who pulled Lara over had none of this information. But he did have a stack of ATM receipts that appeared to indicate the source of the funds. Ultimately, none of that mattered. The Highway Patrol wanted the money, so they found a way to get it. Despite one trooper stating he thought Lara was legit, the law enforcement agency sought outside help to make it easier to retain at least a portion of the $87,000.
Video of the stop, recorded on multiple body cameras, shows a trooper and Lara having a genial conversation, with Lara agreeing to be searched. The troopers pull the cash from his trunk and remark that the bills seem to be new. Lara points them to the receipts, which he says prove the money is his.
“As odd as it is, everything lines up,” a trooper says at one point.
In the video, Lara tells the troopers he does not trust banks. At one point, a sergeant on the scene calls someone — apparently a DEA agent — to confirm the forfeiture process.
“It’s too easy to do an adoption,” the sergeant says.
It is too easy. That’s one thing that’s been obvious for years. States have belatedly realized a lot of forfeiture amounts to little more than state-ordained armed robbery. But restrictions deployed at state level can almost always be bypassed by asking the feds to step in. And forfeiture adoption policies require the federal government to kick back a certain percentage of the take to the locals who initiated the seizure.
So, that’s how things went for Lara. Nevada troopers took his cash, called in the DEA, and the DEA initiated the forfeiture. That happened back in February of this year. Lara challenged the seizure. Then he went public with his accusations. And that appears to be what has triggered a belated change of heart by the DEA, six months after it took control of Lara’s money.
It was only after Lara got a lawyer, sued and talked with The Washington Post about his ordeal that the government said it would return his money.
But that’s not the end of it for the law enforcement agencies involved in this. Lara may be getting his money back but he’s not abandoning his litigation. He’s trying to secure a ruling blocking the Nevada Highway Patrol from utilizing the federal adoption option to get a cut of cash it might have trouble securing on its own.
Some of the damage has been undone. But let’s not forget the government kept Lara’s money for six months for no other reason than it was “too easy to do.” That’s unacceptable.