SAN ANTONIO — A veteran says officers stole thousands of dollars from him after he got pulled over on the highway. His case is shining light on a law enforcement tactic that is legal.
February 19, 2021, Stephen Lara was on his way from Lubbock, Texas to Portola, California. He was making the journey to visit his two teenage daughters.
But, this was not going to be a simple cross country trip for the veteran.
Stephen Lara was unexpectedly driving into the beginning of a long legal fight, involving the federal government, Nevada State and law enforcement.
“I was robbed by people in badges. There’s no doubt about that,” said Lara.
The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, is representing Lara in a case against them. The organization shared several body camera videos of the law enforcement officers involved that day. In the first Nevada trooper’s video, he says that he pulled Lara over because he was following a tanker truck too closely. The trooper stated that he was part of an interdiction unit and their job was to catch people involved in criminal activity, which includes drug trafficking.
“He asked me a whole bunch of questions. Where I was coming from, where I was going, if I had any weapons in the vehicle. If I had any drugs,” recalled Lara.
Throughout the video, the trooper peppered Lara with more questions about his personal background. Lara was a cybersecurity chief, and retired from the Marine Corps after 16 years. He was stationed in various locations across the U.S. Lara, also served in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the trooper asked Lara if he had any cash, the veteran told him the truth.
“When I told them I had cash, he was just very laser focused on that aspect in and of itself. He asked me how much, and I told him,” said Lara.
Lara had $87,000 in his trunk, which was his life savings.
“Everyone’s banking practices are different. My banking practices may not be the same as yours or anyone else’s for that matter. I personally have my reasons. I don’t trust financial institutions,” shared Lara. “It is not a crime to have cash. Whether it be a $1 or $11 million, I can carry as much as I want, wherever I want.”
More law enforcement officers arrived including a DEA agent and a sergeant. Lara said he had nothing to hide from the officers and allowed them to search his vehicle. They found the cash and the proper documentation.
“I have all my receipts there in my bag and I have pay stubs all there. That identifies that it’s all mine,” explained Lara.
But what happened next, stunned the veteran. One of the troopers said he believed the proceeds were from illegal drug activity. In the video, you can see Lara is in disbelief as he questions their findings. In the end, the law enforcement officers made the call to seize the cash. The veteran pleaded with them to not take his money.
“Sir, if you take that money then I don’t have any money for my kids this weekend. I don’t have any money to go home,” said Lara.
They left him with $7 to his name.
“It was absolutely hard. I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I’ve had,” said Lara. “I was trying to figure out how I was going to see my kids again. I didn’t have enough money to see them. There were times when I was trying to figure out how to pay the bills.”
One of Lara’s attorney’s, Ben Field, explained how law enforcement was able to take Lara’s cash legally. He said if federal authorities suspect cash or any valuable property is connected to criminal activity, they can move forward and seize it, even if charges are not filed.
“Equitable sharing is a federal program where the Department of Justice or a federal agency takes money from a state agency, forfeits it without the constitutional protections that state law provides and then, kicks back 80% of the proceeds to the agency that took it. It’s essentially, the federal government paying state agencies to violate their own constitutions,” said Field.
According to the Institute for Justice, in 2019 $333.8 million was paid out to local and state agencies that took part in this program. From 2000-2019, more than $8.8 billion was distributed.
Gerry Goldstein, who serves as a St. Mary’s University School of Law faculty member and was a past president of both the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said you can assert your rights if you are caught in a similar situation.
“You do have a 4th amendment right and interestingly enough in most jurisdictions, the 4th amendment right, to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, applies to civil forfeiture,” said Goldstein. “If you assert those rights and they violate them, you have a right to suppress the evidence, which is their basis for forfeiture. But don’t forget, the burden is on the citizen.”
Lara said after 8 months, he was able to get his money back. But he says it wouldn’t have been possible without his attorney’s.
He also, shared with KENS 5 that he wanted to become an officer, after he retired from the Marine Corps. He believed he could make a difference in the community through police work. But he says his perception of law enforcement has changed after his experience.
“Thousands of people every year are subject to civil forfeiture where the government places the burden on them to prove they’re innocent,” said Field. “Most seizures are only for a few hundred dollars, making it impossible for somebody to hire a lawyer to fight the power of the government.”
Lara has filed a second lawsuit against Nevada Highway Patrol and every law enforcement involved in the day he got pulled over. He says he wants to put an end to equitable sharing and wants the State of Nevada to protect people’s constitutional rights.
“It is not about me. It’s about helping everybody out there who’s went through this, who could possibly go through this in the future,” said Lara. “This is what’s going on in the land of the free. It should not have to be that way.”
The Institute for Justice has a similar case in Harris County. Lara’s attorney says the county has a practice of using civil forfeiture to seize property and hold onto it for years, without giving citizens a chance to go to court and get their valuables back. KENS 5 reached out to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Agency and Nevada Highway Patrol but did not hear back.
Related links on KENS 5: