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After SCOTUS Ruling, Nevada Considers Stronger Civil Forfeiture Laws

Crews remove early morning snow during a winter storm at the Supreme Court on Wednesday. It's not unusual for the high court to be open when the rest of Washington is closed.
Jessica Gresko/AP

Crews remove early morning snow during a winter storm at the Supreme Court on Wednesday. It's not unusual for the high court to be open when the rest of Washington is closed.

By law, police can take your private property if they think it was used in connection to a crime, even if you haven’t been convicted. 


This includes cars, cash, and even houses. Some have called it “policing for profit.” 
Last year in Nevada, law enforcement agencies seized almost $1.6 million in personal property that way, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 


But a week ago, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to limit how much and what can be seized by police. 


The lawsuit revolved around the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, forbidding excessive fines.

“In recent decades I think this has really become an issue where people have realized it is incredibly problematic and is being abused,” Amy Rose with the ACLU of Southern Nevada told KNPR's State of Nevada.

Rose said there is a perverse incentive to asset forfeiture because law enforcement agencies get to keep the money.  

In 2015, the Legislature reformed some of the laws surrounding the practice, but it is still far too easy for police and other law enforcement agencies to take money, said Michael Schaus with the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

A bill draft request that is being worked on right now in Carson City would create even more protections, including a rule that would not allow forfeiture unless there is a criminal conviction.

However, Schaus said a similar bill from 2017 was killed by a deputy district attorney serving in the Legislature.

Schaus pointed out that money from forfeitures pad the budgets of district attorney offices and law enforcement agencies around the country.

To make matters worse, NPRI researched the forfeiture problem and found it disproportionally hurt poor and minority neighborhoods. And the amount of money that was being taken was often less than $1,000 on average.

“They can take $1,000 from you and say that they took it because they believe its connected to some sort of criminal activity that is going to be an easier win for them," Schaus said. "And as result, you see law enforcement agencies around the nation turn to civil asset forfeiture more and more because it is less cumbersome to go ahead and do it successfully.”

In one case Schaus researched, a police officer took $40 from someone during a traffic stop, but that person was never charged with a crime. Under changes passed in the 2015 Legislature, forfeitures are public records, but the records on why that traffic stop happened and why the officer thought the money was associated with a crime are not open.

“That shows there is a real potential for abuse," Schaus said. "If there is not abuse happening already, there is absolutely potential for abuse that is reason number one that is practice has to be brought to an end."

Local and state law enforcement agencies are only part of the problem Rose and Schaus said. The federal agencies are also involved.

They can partner with each other to sidestep any state laws and then share the profits from the forfeiture.

“Even if we have state reforms that are really good, there still another step and that’s tackling the federal side of it as well,” Schaus said.

Rose says Nevada needs to address that part of the problem.

“We can as a state say, ‘no, you are not allowed to do that,’” she said.

Michael Schaus, communications director, Nevada Policy Research Institute; Amy Rose, legal director, ACLU of Nevada

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Kristy Totten is a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada. Previously she was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, and has covered technology, education and economic development for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She's a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.