LAS VEGAS -- If someone with a gun stops you and takes your money -- would you call police? What if the person who takes your money also has a badge?
Some people in Humboldt County, tongue-in-cheek, call it "highway robbery."
One deputy in particular is being singled out for his practice of pressuring travelers to abandon their money or face losing their cars as well. The I-Team has obtained exclusive dash-cam video from one of these drug interdiction stops. While no drugs were found, that didn't stop the deputy from grabbing the cash.
"How much money you got?" Humboldt County Deputy Lee Dove can be heard asking on the video.
Dove can be seen dropping cash on the hood of the car.
Deputy Dove: "That's not yours, is it?"
Motorist: "That's mine."
Deputy Dove: "Well, I'm seizing it."
The dash-cam video gives insight into what some say is a pattern of questionable drug interdiction stops by Deputy Dove along I-80 near Winnemucca in northern Nevada.
The out-of-state motorist was stopped for doing 78 mph in an 75 mph zone. Deputy Dove finds $50,000 cash and $10,000 in cashiers checks during a search of the car.
The first issue is whether Dove obtained permission to search the car or whether he simply told the driver, Tan Nguyen, he was going to do it.
Deputy Dove: "Well, I'm gonna search that vehicle first, ok?"
Nguyen: "Hey, what's the reason you're searching my car?"
Deputy Dove: "Because I'm talking to you ... well, no, I don't have to explain that to you. I'm not going to explain that to you, but I am gonna put my drug dog on that (pointing to money). If my dog alerts, I'm seizing the money. You can try to get it back but you're not."
Nguyen: (inaudible) got it in Vegas."
Deputy Dove: "Good luck proving it. Good luck proving it. You'll burn it up in attorney fees before we give it back to you."
But Dove never seizes the money under state forfeiture law, instead he offers Nguyen a deal. Abandon the cash and you can leave with the cashiers checks. Otherwise, Dove will confiscate the cash anyway and tow the car because Nguyen's name isn't on the rental agreement.
Deputy Dove: "It's your call. If you want to walk away, you can take the cashiers checks, the car and everything and you can bolt and you're on your way. But you're gonna be walking away from this money and abandoning it.
"Our sheriff and our DA have said there's no wrongdoing here," said Dee Holzel.
Holzel is a Winnemucca blogger who wants an investigation of the I-80 cash seizures that's independent of the local district attorney and sheriff.
"What they said initially was, 'well, these are civil forfeiture programs. These kinds of things happen everywhere. There's nothing unusual about Humboldt County.' But that turned out to not be true. When you have people by the side of the road and you're having them abandon their money so they'll be allowed to get in their car and drive away, they don't do that everywhere," Holzel said.
Deputy Dove: "I don't have all day to sit here debating it. You need to give me a decision what you want to do."
Critics believe deputies have been avoiding court oversight by leaning on drivers to abandon their cash rather than seizing it and giving warnings rather than tickets.
"If they're given a ticket, they got to show up in court and say, 'hey, wait a minute, I wasn't speeding and besides that, this guy took my dough,'" said John Ohlson, Nguyen's attorney.
The I-Team caught up with Deputy Dove at a K9 training event in Winnemucca, but Dove declined a television interview. The sheriff's office released a photo of Dove with Nguyen's money following the traffic stop, saying the money would be used to help fight crime. However, the money was eventually returned to Nguyen along with $10,000 in attorney fees after Nguyen sued the department.
"An armed person stops a traveler and demands the traveler's money and tells the traveler that unless he gets in his car and moves on down the road and forgets all about it, he's going to take his car too. I would say that's pretty close to what you're describing as highway robbery," Ohlson said.
Law enforcement agencies can bolster their budgets with cash they seize, but there must be clear and convincing evidence the money is connected to crime. The question is whether deputies pressed drivers to abandon the cash so the rules of civil forfeiture wouldn't apply. It's a technique that may work well on real drug dealers, but critics say it also ensnares innocent people who find themselves tapped out in the middle of nowhere.
Humboldt County Sheriff Ed Kilgore spoke with the I-Team and said proper procedures were not followed in a number of cases. He said, his officers no longer ask people to abandon their cash. If it's suspected proceeds from a crime, the civil forfeiture process will be followed and people will be given their day in court, Kilgore said. He added, he thought the cases were being sent to the district attorney's office and being handled as forfeitures, but some were not. That was the case with Tan Nguyen's money.
"We want to do the right thing. I am a strong proponent of fighting the war on drugs, and I want to make sure everything we do here is on the up-and-up," Kilgore said.
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