License, Registration, Cash, and Valuables?

Winnemucca Court HouseIt’s a slippery slope and the sheriff of Humboldt County, NV may have wandered over it. [LVRJ] Two travelers on I-80 saw their personal cash confiscated because they were “suspected” of drug trafficking.  These civil forfeitures are subject to the provisions of 18 U.S. Code 981, which is pretty lenient on the topic, the person having been perceived as engaging in a “specified unlawful activity.”  There are also the provisions of NRS 179.1164-5 to consider.  In Nevada, the forfeiture is supposed to be attendant with an arrest, a search with a warrant, or an inspection pursuant to a warrant — the latter a rather large loophole.  In short:

“Nevada forfeiture law provides paltry protection for property owners from wrongful forfeitures.  The government may seize your property and keep it upon a showing of clear and convincing evidence, a higher standard than many states but still lower than the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.  But the burden falls on you to prove that you are an innocent owner by showing that the act giving rise to the forfeiture was done without your knowledge, consent or willful blindness.”  [IJ]

So, what standards are applied by officers in Humboldt County?

“…officers are trained to recognize evasiveness during questioning, including stories about travel routes that don’t add up or a lack of luggage on cross-country trips.”  [LVRJ]

Here’s where the specifics become part of the discussion — (1) What constitutes ‘evasion’ during questioning?  (2) What elements of a ‘travel route’ make the journey suspicious? (3) How much luggage is presumed reasonable before a ‘lack’ is noticeable?

Let’s look at the first question:  “Where are you headed?”  Can I respond, “…to California?” Or, must I say that I’m headed for beautiful downtown Fresno to visit my ailing grandmother on Elm Street?  Where have I been?  Can I say, “Colorado?” Or, must I inform the officer that I’ve been helping my disabled brother-in-law move from Grand Junction to Aurora?  Just how much personal information must I divulge to a complete stranger in order to assuage his suspicions that I am not a drug trafficker or a money launderer?

What must I say in order to make my travel route ‘reasonable?’  “Well officer, I tried fishing at Wild Horse, but somebody told me that Knott Creek was better, but I didn’t have any joy there so I thought I’d try the East Carson…..”  What would happen if I said, “I dunno’ I just got into my truck and started looking for places that looked interesting and I might end up over at the Bodie, CA park to see the ghost town…”  Does my itinerary have to make sense to anyone other than myself?

And, how much luggage must I pack before I am plausible?  I do recall, and always with a smile, a former colleague who — with considerable assistance from his wife, I always suspected — could pack everything he needed for a weekend conference in one small attache bag.  I also remember, with some nostalgia for the days when gasoline was $1.50 a gallon, when I could take off for a weekend with everything I needed for a bit of site seeing and photography scrunched into a single duffel bag.  Would this be enough to convince The Officer I wasn’t drug trafficking or doing a bit of ‘asset hiding?’

Without some very clear guidelines, Humboldt County could find itself categorized with such infamous places as Tenaha, TX,

“Police in an East Texas city will no longer enrich their coffers by seizing assets from innocent Black and Latino drivers and threatening them with baseless criminal charges, under a settlement reached today with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU settled a class-action suit, pending court approval, against officials in Tenaha and Shelby County, where it is estimated police seized $3 million between 2006 and 2008 in at least 140 cases. Police officers routinely pulled over motorists in the vicinity of Tenaha without any legal justification, asked if they were carrying cash and, if they were, ordered them to sign over the cash to the city or face charges of money laundering or other serious crimes.” [ACLU]

The infamous Boatright Case is not one with which Humboldt County, NV authorities would want to be associated either.  Unfortunately, the Humboldt County cases are not isolated instances, a recent article in Forbes publicizes other incidents in may other states.  Police in one singularly repugnant incident confiscated church donations on their way to the bank and didn’t release the funds until a former Reagan Administration appointee to the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office took the case pro bono.

When remote, rural, Humboldt County hits ABC NewsBreak, it’s time to give more serious consideration to the nature, and to the implementation of drug enforcement policy than what gives the appearance of hopping on the Cash for Freedom bandwagon of law enforcement officers in too many jurisdictions.

Bones of Contention

Let’s begin with the proposition that no one wants to facilitate drug trafficking, and no one would seriously advocate that we should make it easy for people to hide assets from legitimate scrutiny (and taxation), nor do we want to make it easy for international criminals to transfer funds with alacrity.  That said:

(1) How can we balance the need for legitimate law enforcement activity with the personal privacy and security in our “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” as guaranteed by our 4th Amendment?

(2) How do we adhere to the precept that we are innocent until proven guilty if we allow the civil forfeiture without a standard at least as robust as that required to justify an arrest?

The sorriest part of this state of affairs is that Humboldt County, Nevada, although newsworthy at the moment, is not all that far from the more egregious behavior of police operations in other states.  Instead of attracting a reputation as a bulwark of ‘liberty,’ the county has adopted a culture of convenience, especially when it comes to collecting cash.

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