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I-80 Drug Stops, Seizures Set Off Lawsuits

By Brett Snider, Esq. on March 18, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A Nevada sheriff is taking flak for his practice of stopping suspected drug runners on a rural stretch of Interstate 80 and confiscating their cash.

Humboldt County Sheriff Ed Kilgore assured skeptics that the drug stops were not illegal shakedowns but lawful civil forfeitures, reports The Associated Press.

Are these I-80 stop-and-seizures in step with the law?

Seizing Drug Money Legally

Two men have filed lawsuits against Humboldt County in federal court, alleging that deputies made illegal searches and seizures when stopping vehicles along I-80 near Winnemucca, Nevada, reports the AP. The plaintiffs were both out-of-state drivers who had been stopped in Nevada by Humboldt County deputies, who allegedly offered them their freedom in exchange for their cash and weapons.

Officers can legally seize money they believe is evidence or the proceeds of criminal activity, but they need to have probable cause. This means Humboldt sheriff's deputies must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to stop a vehicle on I-80, and then probable cause to search the vehicle for evidence of a crime before any "drug money" can be seized.

In the two lawsuits, the plaintiffs allege there were no arrests made and no drugs found, reports the AP. Without the discovery of illegal drugs or other evidence to arrest the drivers, how could these officers legally keep the cash?

Civil Forfeiture Proceedings

Once property is legally seized by law enforcement officers -- by warrant, probable cause, and/or community caretaking duties -- it is subject to forfeiture.

In criminal forfeiture, a conviction against a defendant is used as evidence that the property was, beyond a reasonable doubt, the instruments or proceeds of a crime. In one drug case, police were forced to return marijuana to an arrestee who was released after the state's pot laws changed.

However, even if a suspect isn't charged with a crime, the government can use civil forfeiture proceedings to take money they believe is involved in the drug trade. A person can save his property from forfeiture by providing evidence that the money is lawfully his, and rebutting the government's claims of illegality.

It may be difficult, but it isn't impossible. In another notable case, an ex-stripper was successful in retrieving more than $1 million from forfeiture by proving she had made the money via lawful activities (i.e., stripping) and not drug dealing, as troopers had alleged.

So while the system seems to favors forfeiture, if the plaintiffs in the I-80 drug stop lawsuits can prove their seized cash is legit, they should be able to get it back.

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