"I just want to tell you Officer Brown, you're taking money out of my kids' mouths," Stephen Lara said as Nevada Highway Patrol officers confiscated his life savings.
Police pulled over Lara near Reno on February 19. After he consented to a search, the officers discovered nearly $90,000 in bundled cash in Lara's backpack. Although Lara was not arrested or charged with a crime, the officers claimed the money was drug trafficking proceeds and seized through a practice known as civil asset forfeiture.
The government has since agreed to return Lara's money, and on Tuesday, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, released body camera footage of the February 19 traffic stop, calling it a "rare glimpse into an abuse of power that thousands of innocent Americans experience each year."
The Washington Post first reported in September on Lara's case after the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit on Lara's behalf against the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), where his money had been sitting for more than six months since that traffic stop.
"I left there confused. I left there angry," Lara told the 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."
A Nevada Highway Patrol stopped Lara over near Reno for following too close to a semi-truck and traveling under the speed limit. Lara, a Marine combat veteran, was driving from Texas to California to visit his two daughters for the weekend, he said.
After asking Lara several questions about his background, the officer almost sheepishly explained that he was also doing drug interdiction work and asked Lara if he had any guns, drugs, or cash in his car.
Lara admitted he had cash. A lot of it.
"I don't trust banks, so I keep my own money," Lara responded when asked why. He then gave the officer permission to search his car.
On paper, Lara fit the profile of a trafficker. He was driving a rental car for a short-turnaround, long-distance trip with a huge amount of cash, $87,000 in fact. Civil asset forfeiture laws allow police to seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity without charging the owner with a crime. Law enforcement groups say civil forfeiture is vital for drug interdiction because it allows them to target traffickers' illicit proceeds.
But there's also nothing illegal about traveling domestically with large amounts of cash, a fact the officer acknowledges.
"So, as you know, right—I'm a vet, he's a vet, you're a vet—it's not illegal to carry currency or have currency," the officer says. "It does make us ask questions about why someone has $100,000. I can understand why someone doesn't trust banks in this day and age."
"I have nothing to hide from you," Lara responded. In fact, he had years of bank receipts documenting cash withdrawals.
With no probable cause to seize the cash, a Nevada Highway Patrol sergeant who arrived on the scene ordered a drug-sniffing dog to be brought in. The dog alerted on the cash, and the officers announced that they would be seizing it as probable drug proceeds.
Civil liberties organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Institute for Justice say that cases like Lara's show how police use civil forfeiture to seize property on flimsy suspicions. The owners, who are never charged with a crime, then bear the burden of going to court to prove their innocence, or rather the innocence of their property, to be precise.
"Carrying around cash is not a crime," Wesley Hottot, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, said in a press release. "Stephen did nothing wrong. He isn't charged with any crime and the government isn't even willing to defend this seizure in court. Innocent people shouldn't lose their property like this.
Around 35 states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform over the past decade based on these concerns. Four states—Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Maine—have abolished civil forfeiture entirely and now require a conviction before property can be forfeited.
The reason Lara sued the DEA is because of a wrinkle in forfeiture laws. The DEA works with state and local police on drug interdiction efforts, and federal law enforcement can "adopt" forfeiture cases from them, moving the cases to federal court. In return, the local police department gets a cut of the forfeiture proceeds, up to 80 percent.
While the Nevada Highway Patrol officers were debating what to do with Lara's cash, one of them was on the phone with a DEA agent.
Opponents of asset forfeiture say such adoptions are a loophole that allows state and local police to sidestep stricter state laws and requirements for civil forfeiture. The Institute for Justice estimates that the Nevada Highway Patrol stood to gain $70,000 from the federal forfeiture of Lara's cash.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder restricted when federal law enforcement could adopt local forfeiture cases in 2015, but in 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded those rules.
After about an hour and a half after Lara was first pulled over, the officers left him on the side of the road with a receipt of seizure and a number for a DEA agent.
"That money I have in my jacket is only a few dollars," Lara told them. "I have no money to pay for my kids' meals, my hotel, or even to get that car back to Texas."
The Institute for Justice says Lara had to get his brother to wire him money so he could continue his trip.
It was only after Lara sued the DEA for blowing its deadline to either give him his cash back or file a forfeiture case against it in federal court, and only after The Washington Post post reported on his case, that the government agreed to return his money. Lara is still pursuing lawsuits against the DEA and the Nevada Highway Patrol.
"I find it even more concerning that if this could happen to me, as a combat veteran who served overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, this could happen to anybody," Lara says in the Institute for Justice video.
The Nevada Highway Patrol did not immediately return a request for comment.