Time To End Roadside Shakedowns Along Nebraska Highways

A Nebraska county has a pattern of pulling over interstate drivers and making them choose between … [+] being arrested or signing over large amounts of cash.

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There’s a hidden danger for Americans traveling with large amounts of cash on Interstate 80, which runs from New York to San Francisco. Along an otherwise unexceptional 25-mile stretch west of Lincoln, Nebraska, the Seward County Sheriff’s Office routinely pulls people over and threatens drivers with arrest if they don’t give their money up to law enforcement.

Last summer, the Flatwater Free Press reported on Seward County’s practices and how they stood out from other Nebraska counties. This one jurisdiction was responsible for 1 of 3 civil forfeitures statewide. Distressingly, many of these forfeitures were the result of deputies convincing drivers to sign what is known as a roadside waiver.

Christopher Bouldin spoke with the Free Press about his traffic stop. He was pulled over for following too closely. Bouldin refused to allow the deputies to search his van, but a drug dog alerted to his vehicle. No drugs were found, but the deputies did find $18,000, money that Bouldin said he planned on using to gamble and possibly buy a car in Colorado. He also said that he might buy marijuana to use while in Colorado, which is perfectly legal.

Bouldin’s money was placed in an evidence bag and a deputy handed him a form and he was given a choice: sign over the money to the government or face possible arrest. Though he was 1,300 miles from his home in Virginia, Bouldin refused to sign. The deputies left with his cash, but did not arrest him. He was charged with misdemeanor possession of drug money. That charge was dropped but the county prosecutor continued to try to take Bouldin’s money.

Bouldin decided not to sign over his money, but not every person pulled over is willing to take that risk. The median cash seizure in Nebraska is only $996. A driver who is facing a choice between even a remote chance of jail or losing a few hundred dollars may be making a logical choice when they sign the form. Bail and attorneys’ fees could easily add up to much more than the amount seized.

These forfeitures are big business for the Seward County Sheriff’s Office. In the past five years, an office for a county with fewer than 18,000 residents pulled in $7.5 million. That amount of forfeiture makes the office practically self-funding since its annual disbursements are $1.4 million a year. The office also has more than $3 million waiting to be spent in its drug law enforcement fund.

Nebraska Sen. Tom Brewer was distressed by the reports about civil forfeiture in Seward and other counties. He has introduced legislation that would require prosecutors to use the criminal justice process to seize assets, rather than a separate civil suit. Brewer is no anti-law enforcement crusader. In his military career, he was focused on counter narcotics missions in Afghanistan. He’s served on a border management task force, spent time as a Drug Enforcement Administration fellow, and his brother is a sheriff.

Testifying in front of a legislative committee in support of his bill, Brewer said, “If the government is going to take someone’s property it should have proven that there was something committed that would justify it.”

In Nebraska today, a criminal defendant is entitled to an attorney. But they are not entitled to an attorney in the separate civil forfeiture proceeding against their property. Even if they are acquitted in their criminal case, they can still lose their money in the civil case. Brewer’s bill would instead make consideration of taking criminal proceeds part of the criminal trial.

Institute for Justice (IJ) Senior Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath calls Brewer’s bill “the gold standard in forfeiture reform.” It ensures that people only lose their property when they’ve first been convicted of crime beyond reasonable doubt.

Ending civil forfeiture would not encourage crime. In fact, an IJ study found that after New Mexico eliminated civil forfeiture, the state saw no spike in its overall crime rate compared to neighboring Colorado and Texas.

“Your money or your life” was the refrain of highway bandits. People traveling through Nebraska should not have to choose between their money or their freedom while stopped at the side of the road far from home. Nebraska lawmakers should end the shakedowns and ensure that people only lose their property when the government can prove without a shadow of a doubt that they are criminals.