Nevada law enforcement tries to steal money from innocent property owner, yet again

Robert Fellner

State law wrongly allows law enforcement to seize the property or money of those never convicted of a crime. This scheme is made even more perverse by the fact that the seizing law enforcement agency can directly profit from the seizure. The innocent property owner is then forced to spend the time and money to retain legal counsel to fight the forfeiture proceedings, if they wish to have their property returned. But because most forfeitures are for less than $1,000, many simply give up, as the cost of legal representation to fight the forfeiture typically exceeds the value of the seized property.

A recent case illustrates how far law enforcement is willing to go to exploit this perverse system, for their own financial gain.

An out-of-state man was recently arrested at the airport for attempted pandering. At the time of his arrest, the man had nearly $12,000 in cash on his person, which law enforcement seized on the suspicion that it was related to pandering and other illicit activities. With that money now seized by law enforcement, and having no other resources available to him, the Clark County Public Defender’s Office has been providing the defendant with free legal representation.

The prosecutors originally offered to drop all criminal charges if the defendant agreed to allow the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (Metro) to keep the cash. The public defenders relayed that that deal was unacceptable, given that the defendant had no other funds beyond that $12,000, and was thus unwilling to forfeit his life savings. Ultimately, the defendant pled guilty to attempted pandering, which was treated as a gross misdemeanor with credit for time served. The public defenders then filed a motion for the return of his $12,000, which the court granted after the state provided no evidence whatsoever tying the money to unlawful activity. But before the judge made his ruling, Metro filed a motion in another court to have the money seized pursuant to the civil forfeiture process.

The distinction here is key. Under the civil process, indigent defendants lose the right to free legal representation. Metro knows the defendant has no other resources and resides out of state. Thus, if they can move the forfeiture out of criminal court and into the civil process, they will win and get to keep the money simply by virtue of the fact that the defendant cannot afford to defend himself.

The district court saw through this ruse and ordered Metro to return the man’s money. Metro has since appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court, where they are asking the high court to overturn the district court and thus allow them to move the forfeiture proceedings to civil court.

Thankfully, the immensely talented attorneys at the Clark County Public Defender’s Office are still on the case. It was an honor to be able to support their efforts in a just-filed amicus brief, which saw Nevada Policy, the Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, and the ACLU of Nevada all united on this issue.

Regardless of the ultimate legal outcome, this case is yet another example of why the Nevada Legislature needs to abolish civil asset forfeiture. If law enforcement wishes to seize property they believe is connected to a crime, they can do so through the criminal process. Civil asset forfeiture treats all Nevadans as guilty until proven innocent and punishes those who lack the financial resources to afford legal representation. It is an affront to the constitutional protections of due process ostensibly afforded to all Nevadans.

In light of these facts, there exists broad, bipartisan support to reform the unjust practice of civil asset forfeiture.  In 2019, Democrat Assemblyman Steve Yeager introduced a comprehensive reform bill that was supported by then-Assembly Minority Leader Jim Wheeler, a Republican, as well as every other Democrat and half of all Republicans in the Assembly.

After passing the Assembly by a 34-6 vote, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro killed the bill. Cannizzaro’s decision to kill the bill, however, did not reflect the wishes of the people she was elected to serve, but instead the professional and financial interests of her colleagues in law enforcement. That an active member of law enforcement, like Clark County Deputy District Attorney Nicole Cannizzaro, can simultaneously control the laws passed by the Nevada Legislature as Senate Majority Leader is a violation of the separation of powers doctrine so extreme that it appears to be unprecedented in the history of American government. Nevada Policy is seeking enforcement of the separation of powers doctrine in a separate lawsuit.

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Robert Fellner

Robert Fellner

Vice President & Director of Policy

Robert Fellner joined the Nevada Policy Research Institute in December 2013 and currently serves as the Institute’s Vice President and Director of Policy. Robert has written extensively on the issue of transparency in government. He has also developed and directed Nevada Policy’s public-interest litigation strategy, which led to two landmark victories before the Nevada Supreme Court. The first resulted in a decision that expanded the public’s right to access government records, while the second led to expanded taxpayer standing for constitutional challenges in Nevada.

An expert on government compensation and its impact on taxes, Robert has authored multiple studies on public pay and pensions. He has been published in Business Insider, Forbes.com, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, RealClearPolicy.com, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, ZeroHedge.com and elsewhere.

Robert has lived in Las Vegas since 2005 when he moved to Nevada to become a professional poker player. Robert has had a remarkably successfully poker career including two top 10 World Series of Poker finishes and being ranked #1 in the world at 10/20 Pot-Limit Omaha cash games.

Additionally, his economic analysis on the minimum wage won first place in a 2011 George Mason University essay contest. He also independently organized a successful grassroots media and fundraising effort for a 2012 presidential candidate, before joining the campaign in an official capacity.