This Week’s Civil Forfeiture Outrages (Fifth in a Series)

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I just finished watching one of the most gripping, compelling videos I have ever seen. It’s like a dystopian horror movie—except it’s real.

It’s a collection of video clips, mostly from Nevada Highway Patrol footage, that tell the story of how a retired Marine’s life savings were taken from him by police officers.

The story begins near Reno, Nevada. Just outside town, police officers order Stephen Lara to pull his car over. The officer who stops Lara over initially tells him that he was following a truck too closely. But as you listen to the video, you may share my reaction: The conversation between Lara and the officer starts to get really, really creepy.

  • The officer says to Lara: “I applaud you on your driving. You’re driving great.”
  • He then says that he wants to talk to Lara about his driving distance.
  • He orders Lara to get out of the vehicle.
  • He asks Lara a series of questions that appear completely unrelated to any investigative purpose: about the slogan on Lara’s shirt, about the professions of his daughters, about his house and work in another state.
  • But as the conversation continues, the officer’s goal becomes apparent—all he wants to do is to keep Lara talking.
  • The officer then asks Lara a series of questions that probe whether Lara is smuggling “weapons, humans, drugs, illicit currency, things like that.”
  • When the officer asks Lara about the currency he is carrying, Lara tells the truth, saying that he has nothing to hide. Lara, in fact, is carrying a large amount of currency: his life savings of $86,900. (That isn’t illegal; in the video, Lara explains that he just doesn’t trust banks). He is also carrying a collection of receipts for the money (evidence of bank withdrawals, for instance) that’s big enough to choke a horse.
  • The officer immediately asks for permission to search Lara’s vehicle.

Out of Lara’s earshot, the officer then contacts the Drug Enforcement Administration to request that a federal agent come to the scene—so that the agent can handle the paperwork of cash seizure, circumvent the property protections that Nevada law imposes, and kick back most of the proceeds to the state.

The video then reveals a series of different conversations between different law enforcement agents that highlight further attempts to cook up a justification to seize the cash.

Finally, one of the patrolmen brings a drug sniffing dog to the scene to see if the animal alerts to the money. Indeed, the dog alerts, but as the narrator says, because the vast majority of U.S. currency smells of illegal drugs, the dog’s alert is evidence of nothing whatsoever. Nonetheless, it serves as a fig leaf for the seizure of Lara’s life savings; the senior officer on the scene, like any good bureaucrat, calmly explains to Lara what his rights are while the confiscation proceeds.

Lara then explains that he was traveling to see his daughters, and that all he now has left is a few dollars in his jacket. He has no money to pay for his kids’ meals, a hotel room, or even the drive home, “because you took all my money.”

The epilogue: Lara was never charged with a crime; he wasn’t even arrested or ticketed. Ultimately, he had to sue the government to get his money back. (The Institute for Justice deserves kudos for its production of this extraordinary video and for its capable representation of Stephen Lara). Lara was one of the lucky ones: There are plenty of victims of seizure whose separation from their property isn’t temporary, but permanent.

The bottom line here is that the current state of civil forfeiture law offers extraordinary temptations for distraction and corruption. Imagine how much better off we’d be if the law enforcement officers who spend their days shaking down law-abiding citizens were, fighting crime instead.

And I don’t use the word “corruption” lightly, because I’m reminded of the second civil forfeiture outrage of the week. Here’s a KQED news story about a California cop, Sgt. Brendan Tatum, who eliminated the middleman from his civil forfeiture work by keeping some ill-gotten gains for himself.

Tatum, the former head of the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department’s drug interdiction team, pled guilty in a San Francisco courthouse earlier this week to extortion under color of law. Over the last few years, Tatum’s team seized roughly $3.6 million and at least 5,000 pounds of marijuana from motorists by means of civil forfeiture. Tatum had apparently been skimming off the top.

An investigation found that destruction orders for hundreds of pounds of marijuana were missing. The indictment that led to Tatum’s guilty plea listed $400,000 of cash deposits by Tatum’s relatives that were never declared to the IRS. Perhaps the most appropriate conclusion to draw here is: crime—even under color of law—does not pay!