A Nebraska drug lawyer is probably all-too-familiar with the abuse of power demonstrated by law enforcement on Interstate 80. Since the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, police have used the long stretch of road to profile out-of-state drivers and illegally search their vehicles. Drivers in states such as Wyoming and Nebraska have had the worst of it, but this latest incident comes out Nevada, in which a rural Northern Nevada sheriff’s deputy is accused of stopping travelers and confiscating tens of thousands of dollars without bringing charges.
This is according to two federal lawsuits involving two men who were traveling alone through Reno’s high desert last year, in strikingly similar accounts of their stops. Both were pulled over by the same Humboldt County deputy, Deputy Lee Dove, near the town of Winnemuca. The officer illegally searched the car of both men in order to find drugs. Instead of drugs or a reason to arrest, Dove found and confiscated a briefcase filled with $50,000. In the other case, he seized $13,800 and a handgun, according to the lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Reno.
In both instances, the officer supposedly told both men they’d be released with vehicles only if they forfeited the cash over to him.“It’s like Jesse James or Black Bart,” said longtime Reno drug defense lawyer John Ohlson, who filed suit on behalf of Tan Nguyen, 37, of Newport, Calif. John Ohlson believes the cash seizures are part of a pattern of stopping drivers as a pretext for drug busts, a violation of the U.S. Constitution that is very familiar to Nebraska drug lawyers. They maintain Dove, Sheriff Ed Kilgore, Humboldt County and its prosecutors condone the practice of seizing assets regardless of criminal prosecution, and were certainly not shy about discussing their cash seizures. In fact, the day after Nguyen had his $50,000 taken, the sheriff issued a news release with a photograph of Dove pictured with a K-9 and the seized money. “This cash would have been used to purchase illegal drugs and now will benefit Humboldt County with training and equipment. Great job,” the statement said.
Nguyen’s suit completely contests the grounds for the stop and seizure, stating that Deputy Dove stopped him for driving 78 mph in a 75 zone in what was described as a “profile stop.” As any Wyoming or Nebraska drug lawyer can tell you, police must have proper cause to pull you over, otherwise known as ‘reasonable articulable suspicion’ that you have violated the law, instead pulling someone over just because he or she “looks like they might be smoking pot,” or “has a Colorado license plate.”
Nguyen believes it was entirely based on the suspicion he was transporting drugs. He said that he told Dove the money was won at a casino on the way to visit his cousins in California. After Dove declared that he smelled marijuana, he told Nguyen he suspected the money was obtained illegally. Then, as a condition of release, Nguyen was forced to sign a “property for safekeeping receipt,” which indicated the money was abandoned or seized and not returnable. But the lawsuit says he did so only because Dove threatened to seize his vehicle unless he “got in his car and drove off and forgot this ever happened.”
The other incident involved Ken Smith, who was stopped by Deputy Dove and then detained because he had a warrant for another man who also was named Smith. Dove, it seemed, had information showing the wanted Smith was black, even though Ken Smith was white. He even had a different birth date. Like Nguyan, Deputy Dove eventually allowed Smith to leave, under the condition that he sign a waiver surrendering $13,800 and his pistol. Besides emotional distress and humiliation, the lawsuit says Smith now suffers from “fear of law enforcement.”“It’s pretty scary to be out in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road and be told all your stuff is going to be taken away,” said attorney Jeff Dickerson, who filed a suit last month on Smith’s behalf.
No judgment has been made as of yet to determine whether officer Dove was in violation of civil rights on the behalf of the two defendants.