The issue of civil asset forfeiture -- where law enforcement seizes and keeps property suspected to be part of criminal activity -- hit home in Nevada about a year ago when Nevada Highway Patrol officers confiscated more than $86,000 from a Marine vet during a traffic stop just outside of Reno.
The man, Stephen Lara, had not committed a crime but his cash was taken anyway because officers suspected it came from the illegal drug trade.
It took Lara two lawsuits and six months to get his money back, with interest, according to the This Is Reno news website. Lara’s case, however, has raised awareness of the issue with advocates and news media. Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Steven Yeager, D-Las Vegas, called for reform during a Nevada Newsmakers interview this week.
“Unless we reform it, we will continue to see some of the egregious cases that we’ve read about in the news, where a veteran has $100,000 in cash that he’s been saving up to buy a house and the next thing he knows, the police take it with little recourse, if any,” Yeager told host Sam Shad.
“The problem is in the way the process works in the law,” Yeager said. “It’s broken and it needs to be fixed.”
Members of the Legislature have tried to reform the practice but have been met with overwhelming opposition, especially from law enforcement agencies, Yeager said.
Yeager’s Judiciary Committee sponsored AB425, that proposed modest reforms of the practice, in the 2021 Legislature. Although the bill passed out of Yeager’s committee, it failed to get any traction in the law-making process.
“In the last couple of sessions of the Legislature, we have tried to reform the system to say, look, if you are going to take someone’s property, it has to be in tandem with a criminal case,” Yeager said, speaking about a point in AB425. “If you get a criminal conviction, you can keep the property, if you don’t, you don’t keep it. That way, it (the case) is one judge, not in different courts. Unfortunately, we have been unsuccessful in getting that passed.”
The process for victims to get their money or valuables returned is cluttered with red tape, Yeager said.
“There’s no due process or there is very little due process, a very confusing due process,” Yeager said. “So, I’m a believer in, you know, you have a right to your property, so I don’t think the system we have is a just system. I don’t think it is an effective system.”
Law enforcement agencies don’t want to give up the money they receive from the practice, Yeager said. About $8.6 million was seized in Nevada in 2020, U.S. Attorney Nicholas Trutanich told This Is Reno.
“There are a lot of reasons (civil asset forfeiture is not reformed),” Yeager said. “There are financial interests that come into play. Some of the law enforcement that work on these issues actually keep some of the money, so there’s that. And prosecutors’ offices, too. They like the way they have always done it. So when we’ve talked about changing that, bringing in more processors, there has always been this sort of resistance.”
Yeager was also a key lawmaker in the criminal justice reforms of the 2021 Legislature, which included additional limits on police use of force, more robust reporting of hate crimes by state agencies and banning of the sale and possession of “ghost guns,” including firearm frames or receivers sold as kits or made with 3D printers.
The Legislature passed “smart” reforms, Yeager said.
In a state that traditionally has held that the way to fight crime is to have stronger or increased penalties, Yeager sees a different way.
“What we really tried to do in the criminal justice reform is make smart reforms,” he said. “The issues about what is the appropriate threshold -- when does something become a misdemeanor or a felony -- was really based on the data. And what dissuades people, and what we learned, really in all crimes, is not the necessarily the punishment that is going to deter somebody from committing the crime. It is the chance of getting caught.”
He gave examples of speeding and driving under the influence (DUI).
“For instance, with DUI and speeding, that visual of a police officer there on the side of the road deters people,” Yeager said. “It’s not really the fine, they don’t think that. They think, ‘Am I going to get caught?’
Crime fighting is about resources and priorities of law enforcement agencies, Yeager said.
“Some of these issues we’re talking about -- theft, breaking into cars -- those just have to be priorities for local law enforcement to be able to actually solve those cases, because there are criminal penalties. You may think they are too high or too low, but they are there.
“So, it becomes a resource issue for our police officers or our prosecutors to say, ‘We’re going to take those things seriously.’ And I don’t think we’ve done anything in Nevada that would prevent that from happening. There really is a priority-and-resource issue for local law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices.”