Tan Nguyen had a great weekend in Las Vegas, but when he drove back to to California, he made the mistake of taking Interstate 80 through the town of Winnemucca, Nevada, in that state’s Humboldt County.
There, he was pulled over for a routine traffic stop. He was driving 78 mph in a zone where the speed limit is 75 mph — a 3 mph violation that is would usually be well within the unwritten margin of error that police often grant to drivers. But the nitpicky speeding violation was far from the most unusual and intrusive aspect of this traffic stop. According to a transcript of a dashboard camera video, Humboldt County Sheriff’s Deputy Lee Dove is heard asking Tan Ngyuen, “How much money you got?”
Dove refers to the $50,000 cash pile being transported by Nguyen.
“That’s not yours, is it?” the deputy asks.
“That’s mine,” Nguyen responds.
“Well,” says the deputy, “I’m seizing it.”
But this was no ordinary asset seizure either, because Dove then offers the big Vegas winner a deal. He can keep the $10,000 in cashier’s checks that he’s also carrying, if he’ll give up the $50,000. Otherwise, Dove told Nguyen, he’ll keep all the money and tow Nguyen’s car.
Nguyen was not arrested or charged with a crime, but he was forced to cough up his money anyway.
“I don’t have all day to sit here debating it,” Dove told the motorist.
In fact, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department later released this photo of Dove posing with the seized cash.
Needless to say, Ngyuen sued the Humboldt County Sherff’s Department to get his cash back. Last month, the county settled the case, giving Ngyuen back his money plus another $10,000 in attorney’s fees.
Dove had apparently pulled a similar stop-and-seize on another man, taking $13,800 and a legally registered handgun. That suit was also settled.
But no sooner did that happen than 20 more people came forward, saying they too had been stopped in Humboldt County and forced to give up money without any charges or even being accused of a crime. In many cases, they weren’t even slapped with a speeding ticket.
Now those victims are filing their own class-action suit against the county.
“What they’re doing is profiling. They think they’re stopping people who are on their way to California to buy drugs, and then bring them back to the Midwest or the Eastern states, and then sell them,” said John Ohlson, he attorney for the cash seizure victims.
While legitimate asset forfeiture programs exist in jurisdictions across the country, under the laws governing the seizures, there must be clear evidence that the money, or property, is connected to criminal activity.
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