Civil forfeiture now on the media radar E-mail
Written by Mark Nichols   

In libertarian circles and even in the mainstream media there is increasing criticism involving civil forfeiture. In one such controversy, Humboldt County, Nevada Sheriff Ed Kilgore defended the practice of stopping motorists on U.S. Interstate 80 and confiscating tens of thousands of dollars even if no criminal charges are filed.

Kilgore told roughly 40 citizens at a public meeting in Winnemucca recently that the stops are totally legal and are not what they’ve been painted as -  a shakedown operation targeting unsuspecting visitors to the rural county which sits 165 miles east of Reno.

Two individuals, one from Colorado and another from California, have filed federal lawsuits in Reno accusing a deputy of illegally seizing their money.

One incident involved a briefcase containing $50,000 in cash and the other involved $13,800 and a handgun.

Kilgore told the audience and reporters he could not discuss the case. He would only say such seizures are legal if an arresting officer suspects the individual obtained or intended to use the money that was seized illegally.

"What I'm hearing on the street is that we stop you and ask you for your license, registration and your insurance, and how much money do you have? That simply is not how it is ever done," Kilgore said.

However both men tell very similar stories about their stops near Winnemucca.

No drugs were found. No arrests were made. And both men say they were told they'd be released with their vehicles only if they forfeited their cash.

"It's like Jesse James or Black Bart," John Ohlson, a Reno lawyer representing one of the men, told the Associated Press last week.

Bob Pace is a local resident who said whatever happens in the lawsuits is a secondary issue.

"The majority of the community is extra concerned," said Pace, who taught school for 30 years and now works in the mining industry and is not a cop-hater by any stretch.

"You have a huge job and do it well," he told Sheriff Kilgore, "but the perception is an individual on the road is stopped, and they are not cited. They are not arrested, but their cash or their weapons are confiscated."

Humboldt County District Attorney Michael Macdonald defended the practice of civil forfeiture. He said that individuals have the right to go to court to try to prove they obtained or planned to use the money seized by police legally.

For many that just doesn’t pass the smell test and essentially turns the criminal justice system as it’s commonly understood on its head.

Some critics say what’s needed is nationwide look at civil forfeiture and the haphazard rules in some states that create confusion and suspicion.

Robert Dolan is an ex-Humboldt County public defender who now works in a private practice. He says he’s a civil libertarian who thinks the laws should be changed.

"It's a slippery slope of evidentiary standards ... but it's out there. It's lawful," Dolan said. "The deck is stacked against the citizens. And I'm not happy about it. But this system was not invented by Sheriff Kilgore."
Needless to say, with shrinking budgets, fewer cops on patrol and an interested public, the civil forfeiture debate is just getting started.

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