Retired marine Steven Lara is suing the Nevada Department of Public Safety after his items were seized at a traffic stop. This case, which now is in the national spotlight, raises questions about citizen rights at traffic stops.
Lara was pulled over by Nevada State Police on I-80 east of Reno, Nevada in February of 2021; Lara was followed by the trooper for several miles because he was following another truck too closely. Lara, who was in a rental vehicle with Texas license plates, was driving to California. When Lara was pulled over, he was told by the trooper that the reason he was stopped was because of a special enforcement campaign focused on trying to educate drivers about violations they may not realize they’re committing. Lara was then asked to step out the car while his license was run and was asked about the reason for using a rental car. The trooper proceeded to ask if there was anything in the car that the trooper should know about. Lara stated that there was nothing and the trooper continued to ask about specific items like fire arms, explosives, etc. The trooper then asked if there were large sums of currency in the car, to which Lara responded that there was over $10,000. Lara also gave the officer permission to search his car, something Lara later admitted he wished he had not done, but at the time he was trying to be as transparent as possible
After searching the vehicle, the trooper found $86,900 in cash, which is not illegal to carry in Nevada. The trooper then called the Drug Enforcement Agency, and a drug-sniffing dog made a positive hit on the cash—something that is commonly done due to the fact that cash often contains drug residue on it. Lara’s cash was then seized and he was left with only ten dollars to get to his final destination. Lara explained to the officers that the cash was rightfully his and was for his daughters. Since the traffic stop, Lara has yet to get his money returned by the agency.
Civil Asset Forfeitures: Ethical or Unethical?
Lara’s situation isn’t uncommon, and they are part of the civil asset forfeiture laws that are meant to cripple criminal enterprises such as drug and human trafficking. However, this system has many flaws and many feel as though current federal and Nevada State laws allow for police departments to use forfeitures to profit. When assets are seized by officers, like Lara’s cash, the federal agency will take the asset and give the local agency a large percentage of the proceeds. Additionally, many states like Nevada do not require a warrant for seizure, or even a valid explanation.
In Lara’s case, the officer stated the following: Yes, it’s very common, sir. We get people that are trafficking large quantities of marijuana from northern California to all states east, even from Reno.” And later stated, “Like I said, we believe right now that this is drug proceeds, this is illicit currency.” This explanation was given after Lara explained how he did not trust banks, had been saving for the last 20 years, and provided the agency with a stack of bank receipts of his bank withdrawals.
The Institute for Justice has taken on Lara’s case, and they have filed both federal and state cases. In the state case, they hope to show that these stops and seizures are unconstitutional according to Nevada’s constitution. While the goal is to get Lara’s money back, the aim of the lawsuit is to make sure all Nevadan’s rights are protected since not every for-forfeiture case gets to go to court, considering that fighting the case can cost more than the actual seized property, 
Traffic Stops in Nevada
If you are stopped by the police, it is important to stay calm and pull over at the nearest safe place to do so. Here are some things to keep in mind if you are at a traffic stop:
- Don’t lie or argue. Your conversation is being recorded on body cam footage that can be used in court. Lying will not help you, and arguing can escalate a possibly stressful situation into something worse.
- You have the right to remain silent— While in the above situation Lara explained his entire backstory, you are not required to do so. If you wish to remain silent, verbally communicate so. However, you may be arrested if you do not identify your name.
- You do not need to consent to a search of your vehicle or person. This does not include a pat down from the officer. Also, refusing to consent might not stop the officer, but may change your rights if there were to be legal proceedings.
- You do not need to answer questions regarding your citizenship status unless you are at an international border, airport or possess a nonimmigrant (tourist) Visa.
- Always remember, if you are arrested, you have the right to a lawyer as well as a court appointed lawyer if you cannot afford one