Nevada Court Sides With Citizens, Returns Money Seized By Police During Traffic Stops

| by Jonathan Wolfe

A Nevada county has settled two lawsuits with citizens who claimed their civil rights were violated when a police officer took their money after stopping them for minor traffic offenses. Both men had their cars searched for drugs during their stops, but no drugs were found and no charges were filed in either case.

The first man involved is Tan Nguyen. Nguyen was pulled over by Officer Lee Dove for going three miles over the speed limit in Winnemucca, Nev. Nguyen had $50,000 cash in his car when he was stopped, which he told the officer he won from gambling. Dove assumed his sum of cash was earned from drug sales and decided to search his car. No drugs were found.

Nevertheless, Dove told Nguyen he would not be free to go until he handed over his money. Dove was allowed to lay claim to Nguyen’s money under Nevada’s asset forfeiture laws. Asset forfeiture laws give police the right to take money they suspect was earned from illegal drug sales. The archaic law was implemented to drain organized crime rings of their funds.

The second man involved is Michael Lee. Dove pulled over Lee in September of 2013 for speeding as well. Like Nguyen, Lee was carrying a significant amount of cash in his car. The cash provoked similar suspicion from Dove, who searched Lee’s car for drugs. No drugs turned up, but Dove seized $13,800 and a handgun from Lee before letting him drive off.

Both men sued Humboldt County in attempt to regain their money. On Friday, their wishes were granted. The lawsuits were settled, and both Nguyen and Lee will see all of their seized money returned. The county also covered the court fees for both men.

Attorney John Olson spoke on the rulings over the weekend.

"He wasn't charged with anything," Olson said of Nguyen. “He had no drugs in his car. The pretext for stopping him was he was doing 78 in a 75. It’s like Jesse James or Black Bart.”

Perhaps just as rewarding as Nguyen and Lee’s victories is Humboldt County's decision to review its asset forfeiture policies. The district attorney’s office spoke on the impending review.

"The cases involving Mr. Nguyen and Mr. Lee raised procedural issues in the District Attorney's Office and those issues are being addressed by a review of every submitted case," a statement released by the office said. 

Sources: AP, Vice