Newspaper column: Police should not seize property without a conviction

President Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a reputation as a law-and-order guy, but the plan he announced this past week to step up civil asset forfeiture efforts skirts the law and jeopardizes order.

The plan is to reverse an Obama administration policy that restricted how often federal agencies would accept property — cash, vehicles, homes, airplanes — seized by local police agencies under suspicion it was used to perpetrate a crime such as drug dealing. That seized property is sold and the local police get 80 percent of the profits to spend as they see fit. This is called “equitable sharing.”

Sessions rationalized his policy change by saying “civil asset forfeiture is a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains, and prevent new crimes from being committed, and it weakens the criminals and the cartels. Even more importantly, it helps return property to the victims of crime. Civil asset forfeiture takes the material support of the criminals and instead makes it the material support of law enforcement, funding priorities like new vehicles, bulletproof vests, opioid overdose reversal kits, and better training.”

Often property is seized and no one is ever convicted of an actual crime. The owner of the cash or property essentially must prove themselves innocent in a civil court.

In a 2010 report called “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” the Institute for Justice (IJ) noted that the practice provides an incentive for local police to seize property to boost their budgets.

Humboldt County deputy seized cash.

Sessions’ revised seizure policy allows local agencies to skirt state laws that restrict civil asset forfeitures. In 2014, the Justice Department reported $4.5 billion in asset forfeiture revenue.

In this past session of the Nevada Legislature Sen. Don Gustavson of Sparks filed a bill that would have required proof of a criminal conviction, a plea agreement or an agreement by the parties concerned before property could be forfeited. The bill died without a vote.

“Nevada forfeiture law provides paltry protection for property owners from wrongful forfeitures,” the IJ reports. “The government may seize your property and keep it upon a showing of clear and convincing evidence, a higher standard than many states 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. Further, law enforcement keeps 100 percent of the revenue raised from the sale of forfeited property.”

Still, Nevada local law enforcement often engages in “equitable sharing” with federal agencies, according to IJ, which resulted in $21 million accruing to the local agencies over a decade.

There have been a number of instances in Nevada in which property was seized without anyone ever being charged with a crime.

In January 2013 police seized $167,000 from a man driving a motor home westbound along Interstate 80 in Elko County. A judge just recently ordered the money returned.

Over a two-year period Humboldt County deputies seized $180,000 in cash from motorists. One deputy was caught on tape telling a tourist, “You’ll burn it up in attorney fees before we give it back to you.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Las Vegas demanded a local woman forfeit the $76,667 in salary she earned while running an office for her brother, who was later convicted of mortgage fraud. The sister was never charged. A federal judge called the forfeiture effort “the most egregious miscarriage of justice I have experienced in more than twenty years on the bench.”

This happened though the Fifth Amendment provides: “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law …”

In his policy announcement Sessions admitted there can be problems with asset forfeitures, but he promised to “protect the rights of the people we serve. Law-abiding people whose property is used without their knowledge or without their consent should not be punished because of crimes that others have committed.”

That promise hardly constitutes “due process of law.”

Congress should rein in this abuse-prone practice.

In fact, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan have reintroduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act.

“The FAIR Act will ensure that government agencies no longer profit from taking the property of U.S. citizens without due process,” Paul said, “while maintaining the ability of courts to order the surrender of proceeds of crime.”

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: Forfeiture of property should be tied to a conviction

A couple of weeks ago we editorially bemoaned the fact that no one had introduced a bill in the state Legislature to restrict the practice of law enforcement agencies seizing private property — homes, cars, cash and such — under the presumption it is the product of criminal activity, but without ever having to actually go through the due process of convicting someone of a crime — a process called civil asset forfeiture.

That same week state Sen. Don Gustavson of Sparks filed Senate Bill 358 that would require proof of a criminal conviction, a plea agreement or an agreement by the parties concerned before property could be forfeited.

Humboldt deputy seized cash

The bill is almost identical to a bill Gustavson and James Settelmeyer of Minden sponsored during the 2015 legislative session. By the time that bill came out the legislative sausage grinder it merely required police agencies to report their confiscations to the state. As the law currently reads, property may be confiscated and kept or sold without the property’s owner ever being convicted or even charged with a criminal offense.

Though the Fifth Amendment provides: “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law …” police agencies in cooperation with federal law enforcement have for years coerced people into surrendering assets that become the property of the agency — a perverse incentive indeed.

Gustavson’s bill “provides that property is subject to forfeiture only if the underlying crime provides  for such forfeiture, and there is: (1) proof of a criminal conviction; (2) a plea agreement; or (3) an agreement by the parties.” It also “requires the State to establish that seized property is forfeitable by clear and convincing evidence.”

Gustavson testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this past week, “Under current civil forfeiture laws, law enforcement can seize your cash or other property, sell and then use most of the proceeds however they see fit, even though you are never arrested or even charged with a crime. Passage of Senate Bill 358 does not limit law enforcement’s ability to combat drug cartels and other criminal activity. The intent of this legislation is to protect the innocent individual’s liberty and property right and to keep law abiding citizens from becoming entangled in the process that results in their rights being trampled. An innocent tourist driving back to Utah after winning a $1,000 jackpot at a local casino can have his money confiscated though he or she has not been accused of any crime.”

Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, which has advocated civil asset forfeiture law reform for years, also testified. He said law enforcement has the power to take the fruits of criminal activity but that it should be done via criminal forfeiture rather than civil forfeiture.

“The appropriate process that is due is criminal forfeiture,” McGrath said. “It makes sense to charge, arrest and convict the suspect of a crime. If convicted in the same courtroom, the same judge can turn to the question, and it should be an easy question, of whether the cash, whether the vehicle are the proceeds and the instruments of a crime.”

The attorney general’s office, various law enforcement officials and district attorneys testified against the bill, saying the current system is not abused, though others testified to the contrary.

There is a case pending in the courts in which Texas police seized $200,000 in cash, claiming it was the profits of illegal drug trade, though the owners said it was from a the sale of a house. The bill of sale was with the cash. No one was ever convicted of any crime and the police still have the money.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a six-page commentary on the Texas case sighting the evils of civil asset forfeiture, “These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. … Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.”

Nevada has its own record of suspect civil asset forfeiture cases. Over a two-year period Humboldt County deputies seized $180,000 in cash from motorists.

Some states have passed laws similar to the one being advocated by Gustavson to curb the extortionate practice by police by requiring an actual criminal conviction before assets may be taken. This bill is needed to protect citizens and assure due process.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Editorial: Time to stop police from extorting cash and property

The appalling Constitution-bending practice by which law enforcement agencies have for years seized private property under the presumption it is the product of criminal activity without ever having to go the bothersome effort of actually, you know, obtaining a criminal conviction continues apace.

The latest ignoble example of what is called civil asset forfeiture comes to us from Texas in the case of Leonard v. Texas.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case because the attorneys for Lisa Olivia Leonard, whose $200,000 in cash was confiscated when her son was detained during a traffic stop, were arguing the seizure violated the Due Process Clause of the Constitution, but they had failed to make that argument before the lower courts. So, it was not yet ripe for the high court.

The Fifth Amendment provides: “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law …”

Humboldt County deputy with K-9 and $50,000 in seized cash.

In April of 2013, a police officer stopped James Leonard for a traffic infraction, and, during a search a safe was found in the trunk. Leonard told police the safe belonged to his mother. After a search warrant was obtained, police found the safe contained $201,100 and a bill of sale for a home in Pennsylvania.

Texas filed for civil forfeiture of the money, claiming it was the profits from illegal drug sales, though Lisa Leonard said the money was from the sale of a house. A trial court and an appellate court did not believe that, even though no one was convicted of a crime.

Though he agreed the court should not yet hear the case, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a six-page commentary on the evils of civil asset forfeiture.

Justice Thomas said of civil asset forfeitures, “This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses. According to one nationally publicized report, for example, police in the town of Tenaha, Texas, regularly seized the property of out-of-town drivers passing through and collaborated with the district attorney to coerce them into signing waivers of their property rights. …In one case, local officials threatened to file unsubstantiated felony charges against a Latino driver and his girlfriend and to place their children in foster care unless they signed a waiver.”

Nevada has its own record of suspect civil asset forfeiture cases. Over a two-year period Humboldt County deputies seized $180,000 in cash from motorists.

In one case a dashboard camera caught a deputy seizing $50,000 from a man who claimed he won it at a casino. “You’ll burn it up in attorney fees before we give it back to you,” the deputy said. The man was threatened with having his car impounded, too, if he did not cooperate and waive his rights.

Some states have passed laws to curb the extortionate practice by police by requiring that an actual criminal conviction before assets may be taken.

During the 2015 legislative session Republican state Sens. Don Gustavson of Sparks and James Settelmeyer of Minden sponsored a bill that would have established just such a requirement, but by the time the bill came out of the legislative sausage grinder it merely required police agencies to report their confiscations to the state and specifically declared convictions would not be necessary.

No one has deigned to try to challenge civil asset forfeitures this year in Carson City, but someone should.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

UPDATE: On Monday state Sen. Don Gustavson filed Senate Bill 358 that would require proof of a criminal conviction, a plea agreement or an agreement by the parties before property could be taken under a civil asset forfeiture.

Newspaper column: Another reason to ban civil asset forfeitures

Straughn Gorman had cash seizure from his motor home.

The pernicious and corrupting influence of civil asset forfeiture procedures is on display this summer in still another Nevada case.

The temptations for law enforcement agencies are so great that some will connive, conspire and twist the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures to get their hands on citizens’ property and money.

In June, U.S. District Court Judge Larry Hicks scolded federal prosecutors for covering up the circumstances surrounding the confiscation of $167,000 from a man driving a motor home westbound along Interstate 80 in Elko County in January 2013.

The man, Straughn Gorman of Hawaii, was first stopped by a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper just outside of Wells for driving too slowly in the left lane, though he said he was passing trucks and intended to pull to the right as soon as he passed.

Nevada State Trooper Greg Monroe asked a lot of questions, made records checks on his radio and tried to get a canine unit to come to the scene of the stop, but none was available.

The officer probed Gorman about where he was going and why and where he worked, to which Gorman replied he was going to Sacramento to visit his girlfriend and that he sold paddle boards in Maui. The officer asked Gorman how he could afford to drive a motor home across the country when gasoline cost $3 a gallon and how much he earned selling paddle boards.

Gorman replied, “I don’t want to talk about how much I make,” court records show, but he did tell the trooper he was carrying $2,000 in currency.

Trooper Monroe then asked Gorman, “Do you mind if we search the vehicle?”

Gorman answered, “I do mind, yes.”

The trooper said he was free to go, but NHP contacted Elko deputies who sent a canine unit to intercept the motor home 50 miles down the road.

When Elko Deputy Doug Fisher stopped the motor home, his dog “alerted” to something in a rear compartment and the deputy called in for a search warrant. A search turned up cash in a microwave, freezer and bedroom compartment, but no drugs. No criminal charges were ever filed against Gorman.

But in court documents filed by the U.S. attorney when Gorman tried to get his money back, no mention was ever made of the original stop. And the warrant was obtained for the second stop without ever mentioning the first stop.

In his ruling Judge Hicks found that the two stops were inextricably connected and that Gorman’s total detention was unreasonably prolonged, thus a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Hicks cited case law that states, “[U]nder the ‘fruits of the poisonous tree’ doctrine, evidence obtained subsequent to a violation of the Fourth Amendment is tainted by the illegality and is inadmissible.”

Hicks also wrote, “Ultimately, while an officer ‘may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop. … he may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.”

In ordering Gorman’s money returned, Hicks blasted the U.S. attorney, saying, “In particular, the government has a duty of candor and fair disclosure to the Court. The Court expects and relies upon the United States Attorney’s Office to be candid and forthcoming with material information uniquely held only in possession of the government and clearly relevant to central issues before the Court. That did not occur here.”

The judge granted Gorman the right to seek court and attorney fees from the state, which reportedly could exceed $150,000.

What is doubly disappointing is that the limp-wristed Nevada Legislature had an opportunity this past session to put a stop to injustices like this. Senate Bill 138, as introduced, would have required proof of a criminal conviction or an agreement among all parties before seizure of cash or property.

By the time it was sent to the governor, who signed it, the conviction requirement was dropped. It does say the seized property or money should be returned if charges are dropped or dismissed after a trial. But too often charges are never filed against anyone. The law takes effect Oct. 1.

 A version of this column appears this week in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, the Lincoln County Record and the Sparks Tribune — and the Elko Daily Free Press.
Update: This week the U.S. attorney’s office in Reno said it plans to challenge Hick’s order in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I’m disappointed that prosecutors are not going to accept the well-reasoned decision of Judge Hicks,” Gorman’s Las Vegas lawyer, Vincent Savarese, was quoted as saying Wednesday by the Las Vegas newspaper. “I do not believe they have any meritorious grounds for appeal.”

Newspaper column: Nevada lawmakers must put a stop to civil asset forfeitures prior to conviction

The whole concept of civil asset forfeiture turns the law on its head, essentially finding people guilty until they can prove their innocence.

Police departments and federal agencies across the country have been using civil procedures to seize cash, cars and homes that just might be somehow, maybe linked to a crime.

In Humboldt County here in Nevada a county deputy seized $50,000 from a California tourist who said he’d won it at a casino. The deputy claimed he might be a drug dealer.

According to a recording from a dashboard-mounted camera in the patrol car, the tourist asked why he was being searched, and the deputy replied, “Because I’m talking to you … well, no, I don’t have to explain that to you. I’m not going to explain that to you, but I am gonna put my drug dog on that. If my dog alerts, I’m seizing the money. You can try to get it back but you’re not.”

He also told the tourist, “You’ll burn it up in attorney fees before we give it back to you.”

Over a two-year period Humboldt deputies seized $180,000 in cash from motorists, some of them got their money back after fighting the seizure in court.

Deputy seized cash from motorist.

The Nevada Attorney General’s office reportedly is investigating the county’s highway interdiction program, which smacks of highway robbery to us. The county’s new sheriff, who took office in January, has placed the deputy quoted above on paid leave pending an investigation.

In another Nevada case, the U.S. attorney’s office in Las Vegas demanded a local woman forfeit the $76,667 in salary she earned while running the office of her brother, who was later convicted of mortgage fraud.

U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt called the federal forfeiture effort against Jenna Depue “the most egregious miscarriage of justice I have experienced in more than twenty years on the bench. I refuse to be a party to it.”

Recently, New Mexico lawmakers passed a bill essentially ending most civil asset forfeitures in that state until someone is convicted of a crime. It also would not let police agencies keep the proceeds of a seizure and instead channels it into the state general fund, thus ending an incentive for police to use seizures to raise money.

In Carson City, Republican state Sens. Don Gustavson of Sparks and James Settelmeyer of Minden have sponsored Senate Bill 138, which is similar to the one in New Mexico. It also requires a conviction prior to seizure and states that any money left over after expenses are covered goes to the state general fund. The bill also mandates annual reports to the state on civil asset forfeitures.

The Fifth Amendment provides that “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

But too often police intimidate people by basically extorting waivers of due process rights. In the case of the tourist in Humboldt, he was threatened with having his car impounded, too.

The Institute for Justice has been fighting civil asset forfeiture in the courts and on op-ed pages of newspapers for years. President and General Counsel Chip Mellor of IJ once said: “The Institute for Justice has documented time and again that civil forfeiture invites a lack of accountability, a lack of due process and a lack of restraints on government authority. Civil forfeiture needs to end. If the government wants to take someone’s property, it should first be required to convict that person of a crime.”

In a 73-page article published in the Nevada Law Journal, David Pimentel, a law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, laid out the case against civil forfeiture.

“Given the dubious policies behind facilitating property forfeitures, and the due process problems inherent in carrying them out, the more potent question is whether facilitating property forfeitures should be allowed at all,” writes Pimentel. “If the taking of such property is to be justified, or even tolerated, it must be for the most compelling public policy purposes, none of which can be demonstrated for facilitating property forfeitures.”

Let’s hope SB138 breezes through the legislative process and the governor signs it into law.

A version of this column appears this week in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, the Lincoln County Record and the Sparks Tribune — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Time for Nevada lawmakers to put a stop to civil asset forfeitures

The whole concept of civil asset forfeiture turns the law on its head, essentially finding people guilty until they can prove their innocence.

Police departments and federal agencies across the country have been using civil procedures to seize cash, cars and homes that just might be somehow, maybe linked to a crime.

In Philadelphia a family’s $350,000 home was seized because police suspected their son was dealing drugs, for example.

In Humboldt County here in Nevada a county deputy seized $50,000 from a California tourist who said he’d won it at a casino, because he thought he might be a drug dealer.

Humboldt County deputy seized tourist’s cash.

According to a recording from a dashboard-mounted camera in the patrol car, the tourist asked why he was being searched, and the deputy replied, “Because I’m talking to you … well, no, I don’t have to explain that to you. I’m not going to explain that to you, but I am gonna put my drug dog on that. If my dog alerts, I’m seizing the money. You can try to get it back but you’re not.”

He also told the tourist, “You’ll burn it up in attorney fees before we give it back to you.”

Never mind that most cash these days have traces of drugs on it.

The tourist sued and eventually got his cash back.

In another Nevada case, the U.S. attorney’s office in Las Vegas demanded a local woman forfeit the $76,667 in salary she earned while running the office of her brother, who was later convicted of mortgage fraud.

U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt called the federal forfeiture effort against Jenna Depue “the most egregious miscarriage of justice I have experienced in more than twenty years on the bench. I refuse to be a party to it.”

Imagine working for someone for 20 years performing perfectly legal duties such as sweeping the floors only to have your boss convicted of a crime and learn the federal prosecutors are demanding you forfeit your life savings because those earnings were the issue of a criminal act.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder finally saw the light and put a stop to letting local law enforcement agencies use the federal Equitable Sharing program, under which police used federal law to seize property and then get to keep 80 percent of the value of what was seized.

Recently, New Mexico lawmakers passed a bill essentially ending most civil asset forfeitures in that state until someone is convicted of a crime. It also would not let police agencies keep the proceeds of a seizure and instead channels it into the state general fund, thus ending an incentive for police to use seizures to raise money.

In Carson City, Republican state Sens. Don Gustavson of Sparks and James Settelmeyer of Minden have sponsored Senate Bill 138, which is similar to the one in New Mexico. It also requires a conviction prior to seizure and states that any money left over after expenses are covered goes to the general fund. The bill also mandates annual reports to the state on civil forfeitures.

The Fifth Amendment provides that “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” But too often police intimidate people by basically extorting waivers of due process rights.

In case of the tourist in Humboldt, he was threatened with having his car impounded, too.

The Institute for Justice has been fighting civil asset forfeiture in the courts and on op-ed pages of newspapers for years. President and General Counsel Chip Mellor of IJ once said:  “The Institute for Justice has documented time and again that civil forfeiture invites a lack of accountability, a lack of due process and a lack of restraints on government authority. Civil forfeiture needs to end. If the government wants to take someone’s property, it should first be required to convict that person of a crime.”

Former Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial page editor John Kerr, now a communications fellow with IJ, penned one of those op-eds for the Las Vegas paper recently. He wrote:

“Many law enforcement officials defend the current forfeiture laws as an effective and valuable tool in the fight against crime. But the Bill of Rights wasn’t enshrined in the Constitution for the purpose of empowering the government over its citizens — quite the opposite. Laws that allow police to seize cash, jewelry, homes and other valuables solely on the hunch of illegal conduct mock the principles that enrich and define a free society — such as liberty, justice and property rights — if not paired with meaningful judicial review in which the state must prove both the suspect’s guilt and a link between crime and the property.”

In a 73-page article published in the Nevada Law Journal, David Pimentel, a law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, laid out the case against civil forfeiture. Here is an excerpt:

“Given the dubious policies behind facilitating property forfeitures, and the due process problems inherent in carrying them out, the more potent question is whether facilitating property forfeitures should be allowed at all. If the taking of such property is to be justified, or even tolerated, it must be for the most compelling public policy purposes, none of which can be demonstrated for facilitating property forfeitures.”

Let’s hope SB138 breezes through the legislative process and becomes law.

Dashcam video of cash seizure: