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Man Fights For Return Of Money Taken During NHP Traffic Stop

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Institute for Justice
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Nevada Highway Patrol troopers took $87,000 from Stephen Lara during a traffic stop early this year. He is waiting for its return despite not being charged with a crime.

A Texas man is suing to recover nearly $87,000 taken from him at a Nevada Highway Patrol traffic stop early this year.

Stephen Lara of Lubbock, Texas, says troopers confiscated his life savings after he got pulled over near Reno while heading to visit family in California.

Lara told State of Nevada a trooper told him he was following a truck too closely and then asked him if he could search his vehicle.

“Not having anything to hide,” Lara said he agreed. He said he alerted the troopers to the cash and the receipts that showed the money was his and “the demeanor kind of changed on their end.”

“It was laser-focused toward the money and nothing else.”

Lara said the troopers took the money without any charges being filed and “they sent me on my way with no money in my pocket, not even in enough gas to fill up my car.”

An attorney representing Lara said the case illustrates the abuse of the civil forfeiture system, something he called “one of the dirty secrets of the American criminal justice system.”

“Civil forfeiture allows police and prosecutors to take property from someone put the burden of litigation on the property owner to fight to get it back,” said Wesley Hottot, senior attorney at Institute for Justice.

He said federal, state and municipal agencies can split forfeited monies, so there is an incentive to be aggressive in confiscations. Lara was told earlier this year by the Drug Enforcement Administration his money would be forfeited unless he contested the action, which he did.

“Even in circumstances where you do get your money back, it takes months,” he said.

Hottot said federal authorities told him Lara’s money would be returned after the case first received media attention, but “it's been another month and the money is still not in Stephen’s hands.” 

The highway patrol did not return requests for comment.

Stephen Lara, stopped by NHP; Wesley Hottot, senior attorney, Institute for Justice

 

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Dave Berns, now a producer for State of Nevada, recently returned to KNPR after having previously worked for the station from 2005 to 2009.