Police and prosecutors have been too happy to trample the rights of law-abiding Americans by abusing the asset forfeiture process. But Nevada authorities’ zeal to steal from unsuspecting citizens for their agencies’ gain compelled them in at least one instance to abuse the justice system itself.
Last month, Senior U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks ordered federal prosecutors to return to a Hawaii man $167,000 that was illegally seized by Elko County sheriff’s deputies in a January 2013 traffic stop, and the judge blasted the U.S. attorney’s office for deliberately withholding evidence that the stop was improper. The case is much more than a reminder of the need for forfeiture reform. It is a clarion call for authorities who stomp on the Constitution to be held accountable for willfully violating their oaths to defend it.
Asset forfeiture laws were enacted to help authorities prevent criminals from keeping the proceeds of their offenses and provide restitution to victims. But federal, state and local police have warped the law’s application to the point that they now can take anything from anyone if they merely suspect that assets were used or might be used in the commission of a crime — and they can do this without so much as writing a traffic citation, let alone making an arrest and obtaining a conviction. Officers can keep seized cash and property for their departments to fund equipment and training. The financial incentive to make such seizures has rightly been condemned by civil libertarians as policing for profit.
As reported by the Review-Journal’s Jeff German, Straughn Gorman was victimized by this racket while driving a motor home west on Interstate 80. He was stopped by the Nevada Highway Patrol for driving too slow in the fast lane. Troopers asked to search the motor home, but Mr. Gorman refused. He was allowed to continue his trip without a citation.