The Nevada trooper first told Stephen Lara the highway patrol was educating drivers “about violations they may not realize they’re committing,” and that he’d been pulled over for following a tanker truck too closely. Eventually the trooper admitted having an ulterior purpose: stopping the smuggling of illegal drugs, weapons and currency as they crossed the state.
Lara — a former Marine who says he was on his way to visit his daughters in Northern California — insisted he was doing none of those things, though he readily admitted he had “a lot” of cash in his car. As he stood on the side of the road, police searched the vehicle, pulling nearly $87,000 in a zip-top bag from Lara’s trunk and insisting a drug-sniffing dog had detected something on the cash.
Police found no drugs, and Lara, 39, was charged with no crime. But police left with his money, calling a Drug Enforcement Administration agent to coordinate an “adoption,” which allows federal authorities to seize cash or property they suspect is connected to criminal activity without levying criminal charges.
“I left there confused. I left there angry,” Lara said in an interview with The Washington Post. “And I could not believe that I had just been literally robbed on the side of the road by people with badges and guns.”
It was only after Lara got a lawyer, sued and talked with The Washington Post about his ordeal that the government said it would return his money.
Asked for comment on this story Tuesday, spokespeople for the Justice Department, DEA and Nevada Highway Patrol all declined. But Wednesday, after this story first published online, DEA spokeswoman Anne Edgecomb said the agency had made a decision to return Lara’s money and Justice Department spokesman Joshua Stueve said the government “is reviewing existing policy on adoptive forfeitures.”
Lara and his representatives concede some of his actions could raise questions. But advocates say the case shows how the federal government abuses its asset forfeiture authority, by requiring those whose property is taken to prove their innocence to get it back.
The “adoption” maneuver is particularly controversial, they say, because it involves federal law enforcement using its power to encourage a seizure by state police. Much of the forfeited property ultimately goes back to the state agency if it’s not returned to the original owner, and advocates say many owners don’t have the means or sophistication to get their items back.
Attorney General Eric Holder curtailed use of the practice in the Obama administration, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions restored it under President Donald Trump. Though Attorney General Merrick Garland has rolled back many Trump-era changes at the Justice Department, he has not taken action on asset forfeiture.
“This is an inherently abusive power that state and local law enforcement should not have,” said Wesley Hottot, a lawyer representing Lara with the Institute for Justice, which advocates against civil asset forfeiture. “What we see almost exclusively are people like Stephen who — perhaps had quirky banking practices — but they’re not guilty of any crime. And yet, in the nation’s airports, on the nation’s roads, they’re treated by police as though a large amount of cash by itself is criminal. And that power is too dangerous to give every police officer on the street.”
'Everything lines up'
To law enforcement, Lara in some ways fit the profile of a drug trafficker. He planned to drive more than 40 hours over four days in February, from Texas to Northern California and back. In addition to the cash, he had a stack of receipts showing ATM withdrawals of more than $130,000 over three years — seeming to anticipate the bills in his trunk would draw questions.
Video of the stop, recorded on multiple body cameras, shows a trooper and Lara having a genial conversation, with Lara agreeing to be searched. The troopers pull the cash from his trunk and remark that the bills seem to be new. Lara points them to the receipts, which he says prove the money is his.
“As odd as it is, everything lines up,” a trooper says at one point.
In the video, Lara tells the troopers he does not trust banks. At one point, a sergeant on the scene calls someone — apparently a DEA agent — to confirm the forfeiture process.
“It’s too easy to do an adoption,” the sergeant says.
After Holder banned the Justice Department from adopting local seizures — with exceptions for joint federal-local investigations and gun and child-porn crimes — such cases and their proceeds declined sharply, hitting a low of about $4.9 million in 2017, according to federal data analyzed by the Institute for Justice.
But that year, Sessions issued a directive reviving the practice.
In 2018, proceeds from forfeitures through adoptions not connected to a joint operation crept up to $19.6 million, according to the institute. They fell slightly, to $16.5 million, in 2019, the last year for which the institute says there is reliable data.
Lara sued the Nevada Highway Patrol over the seizure on Tuesday and filed a court motion asking the DEA to give him his money back, saying it was taken without probable cause as part of a program that incentivizes such conduct.
After the DEA told Hottot it planned to return the money, he said the lawsuit would continue.
“This is a standard tactic that the federal government uses to try to prevent people from challenging the constitutionality of their cash cow,” Hottot said.
Lara is seeking a declaration that the seizure lacked probable cause and a restraining order barring the Nevada Highway Patrol from participating in the federal program that allows them to share proceeds of forfeitures. “Which is really perverse when you think about it, because a person who hires an attorney and has to file a lawsuit to get the money back is the person who needs the fees,” Hottot said.
Hottot said he will also seek interest and payment of Lara’s costs — though he said federal courts have often not awarded those to people whose money is returned by the DEA.
Innocent until proven guilty
Lara insists the money seized was his, earned legitimately over many years. He said he typically kept the cash in the home he shares with his parents in Lubbock, Tex., but had it in the car with him because he was planning to look for homes closer to his children that weekend, and his parents were scheduled to be out of town.
“I felt that it was safer that I secure my money by taking it with me,” Lara said, adding that he kept receipts in the car because he likes to keep “tight documentation” of his finances.
The DEA notified Lara in early April that it was initiating “administrative forfeiture proceedings” for the cash taken in the Feb. 19 seizure — which would allow them to keep it, if he did not intervene.
With the institute’s help, Lara filed a formal claim for the cash on April 21. In a court filing, Lara’s attorneys asserted that the government needed to have filed a civil forfeiture complaint or a criminal case within 90 days to hold on to Lara’s money.
Lara’s recent sources of income have been retirement pay from his military service, which included tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, a hospital job and unemployment benefits. His bank statements show some confusing patterns, including widely variable monthly transfer activity, but they also support Lara’s explanation that he liked to keep most savings in cash, and made deposits to pay certain bills.
A search of available public records does not reveal any significant criminal history for Lara. He pleaded guilty in 2017 in an insurance fraud case, which was dismissed after he paid a fine and did community service. In the video of his stop, Lara concedes he had not paid taxes in two years. Hottot said he has since prepared returns, with the help of an accountant, and intends to file them in the coming days.
Former U.S. attorney Joyce Vance said some details of Lara’s case mimic classic signs of money laundering — and to a suspicious prosecutor, his claim to distrust banks could sound “like a pretty good cover story.”
But Vance said the case also highlights why many in law enforcement prefer to pursue forfeiture cases connected to indictments, rather than taking assets in civil court.
“You can’t just take people’s stuff because you happen to find them with cash,” Vance said. “We still live in a country where people are innocent until they’re proven guilty.”
'Just liked to have his cash'
Kimberly Olsen, Lara’s ex-wife, said Lara owes her about $18,000 in child support — about $900 a month is automatically deducted from his income to chip away at that. Last year, she successfully sought a restraining order that limits their contact to brief exchanges surrounding his visits with the kids.
Hottot said Lara disputes he owes $18,000 and is negotiating with authorities to get it erased, even as he pays it down.
Olsen said she thought Lara might have kept his money out of the bank in part so he would not have to turn it over in child support. But she noted that even when they were married years ago, Lara “just liked to have his cash” and made frequent withdrawals.
She said Lara did not seem to spend an inordinately high amount but liked to “show off” the cash itself, and spend it on his kids. She said she did not think he was a drug trafficker.
“He has some problems. That’s why I have a restraining order against him,” Olsen said. “But I just don’t see this being some ordeal where he’s selling drugs or something. I just think he’s weird.”
As the traffic stop came to a close, officers declared they were taking Lara’s money and said he was free to go. Lara grew frustrated, asking how he’d pay for his hotel room and food for his children during the trip.
“You’re taking food out of the kids’ mouths,” Lara says on the video.
“Like I said, we, we believe right now that this is drug proceeds,” a trooper responds.
“Well,” Lara responds, “I’m gonna prove to you that it’s not.”
Alice Crites and Alex Horton contributed to this report.