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U.S. attorney wants to appeal loss to Hawaii man in Nevada cash seizure case

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LAS VEGAS >> The top federal prosecutor in Nevada wants to appeal an order to return $167,000 seized from a Hawaii man who was stopped twice on Interstate 80 near Elko but never charged with a crime.

U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden said in a statement this week through spokeswoman Natalie Collins that his office has asked the solicitor general for authority to challenge U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks’ June 12 ruling.

The $167,000 was confiscated from Straughn Gorman in January 2013, but the case could cost the government more than $300,000 because the judge also put the government on the hook to pay attorney fees and costs that Gorman’s attorney, Vincent Savarese, said total at least $142,000.

“They’re out there stopping people so they can get into their vehicles to see if they can keep what they find,” Savarese said of forfeiture methods criticized in other states as “policing for profit.”

“Most people don’t fight it. Most will settle. I think they count on that,” Savarese said Thursday.

The Nevada attorney general’s office is investigating the highway interdiction program on I-80 after a series of federal lawsuits against the policy in Humboldt County, west of Elko. Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Allen suspended the program when he took office in January.

At least four states have recently overhauled the practice, which allows police to confiscate property even if a person isn’t charged with a crime. The person has the burden to prove they acquired the property legally.

Local police agencies to keep 80 percent and the federal government 20 percent of cash seized. In Montana, officials used funds from asset seizures to create that state’s first K-9 unit.

In the Elko case, Hicks faulted police and prosecutors for misleading the court by failing to report that Gorman was stopped first by a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper, who let Gorman go but called an Elko County sheriff’s deputy who stopped Gorman a second time and summoned a dog to sniff his vehicle.

“The government has a duty of candor and fair disclosure to the court,” the judge wrote. “That did not occur here.”

Hicks said that no matter how the traffic stops are viewed, they both extended beyond legitimate purposes.

Savarese said he believes Gorman was stopped because he was driving a vehicle with Delaware license plates on what authorities believe is a drug smuggling conduit. The lawyer said Gorman, who wasn’t issued a traffic ticket, was left on the side of the road when his vehicle was impounded.

“They took all his money,” Savarese said. “They also took his vehicle, his phone, his laptop and his wallet and kicked him out on the highway to hoof it in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere. He had to beg them for a ride into Elko.”

Savarese noted that the U.S. Justice Department has changed forfeiture policies since the government sued in 2013 to keep Gorman’s money.

“It’s not a crime to carry money,” the attorney said.

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