Earlier this month, California resident Tan Nguyen won a lawsuit against the Humboldt County, Nevada Sheriff’s Department in which he claimed a deputy illegally took over $50,000 in cash he had in his car.
The lawsuit stems from a traffic stop in which Humboldt County Sheriff’s Deputy Lee Dove pulled over Nguyen for going 78 miles per hour in a 75. Nguyen was on his way home from a successful trip in Vegas, and had $50,000 in cash and $10,000 in cashier checks in his car.
Yesterday, Las Vegas news station KLAS published dash cam video from the stop.
“How much money you got?” Dove asks Nguyen. “That’s not yours is it?”
When Nguyen says the money is his, Dove immediately says “Ok, well I’m seizing it.”
When Nguyen protests the seizure, Dove says he will stick his drug dog on the money and seize it if the dog alerts. Since virtually all paper money is believed to be contaminated with drug residue, it’s a fairly sure bet a drug dog would alert after sniffing the money.
“I am gonna put my drug dog on that (pointing to money),” Dove says. “If my dog alerts, I'm seizing the money. You can try to get it back but you're not."
After Nguyen says he got the money in Vegas -- not from drugs -- Dove says he is seizing the money regardless.
“You’ll burn [the money] up in attorney fees before we give it back to you,” the deputy adds.
Dove then tries to cut a deal with Nguyen. If Nguyen lets Dove take the cash, Dove will let him keep the $10,000 in cashier’s checks and only issue him a warning. If Nguyen refuses the deal, Dove will take both the cash and cashier’s checks and tow his car.
This, according to attorneys involved in the lawsuit, is where the seizure becomes entirely illegal. The United States does have forfeiture laws that allow law enforcement agencies to seize money they believe is earned in the drug trade. But, as attorney John Olson says, the agency has to be able to prove this is the case. They can’t simply pull a man over for barely surpassing the speed limit and then take his money.
"An armed person stops a traveler and demands the traveler's money and tells the traveler that unless he gets in his car and moves on down the road and forgets all about it, he's going to take his car too. I would say that's pretty close to what you're describing as highway robbery," Ohlson said.
After Nguyen filed his lawsuit, 20 more people came forward with similar claims against the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department.
Humboldt County Sheriff Ed Kilgore now admits his department did not follow proper procedures when seizing the money. He says they’ve been instructed to stop the illegal seizures and now only take money in accordance with civil forfeiture procedures.
"We want to do the right thing,” Kilgore said. “I am a strong proponent of fighting the war on drugs, and I want to make sure everything we do here is on the up-and-up.”