On Your Side: Law enforcement seizes money without arrest

WINNEMUCCA, Nev. ( & KRNV) -- Imagine getting pulled over for a traffic stop, and instead of getting a ticket, the officer takes your money. All of it.

It happened to one man recently, who was driving on Interstate 80 through Northern Nevada. Now, he is fighting back.

It's a case that focuses on our rights: Can law enforcement take your money or property, even if you are not charged with a crime?

The driver was Tan Nguyen of California. He has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office and District Attorney. His attorney, John Ohlson said, "The basis of the stop was he was going 78 in a 75. The stop ended in a search, and the deputy took $50,000 from my client that belonged to him."

Nguyen was not arrested. He was not charged with any crime. But Humboldt County Sergeant Lee Dove decided to confiscate a bundle of cash Nguyen happened to be carrying: $50,000 worth. Sergeant Dove even posed for a photo after seizing the cash.

In this incident report, Sergeant Dove observed that Nguyen seemed "nervous", was "argumentative", and that the car smelled of marijuana. No drugs were found during the stop.

Nguyen was not cited for doing anything illegal, although Sergeant Dove wrote in his report, "I felt he was not part of the legal traveling public," which he cited as justification for taking Nguyen's money.

When asked why Nguyen had so much cash, Ohlson responded, "I think it doesn't matter. I think the point is as long as there is U.S. currency in circulation, and we're allowed to have it, you can carry it."

This case seems to raise a lot of questions about all of our rights as citizens. The Humboldt County Sheriff Ed Kilgore was asked if he had any concerns about how the money was seized during this stop.

"At this point, I can't comment, since its an active litigation," Kilgore said.

But Humboldt County Assistant District Attorney Kevin Pasquale responded by saying, "If we think the money was obtained illegally, we have a right to seize it."

Does law enforcement have that kind of power? That's the question. This case is now headed to federal court, where a judge will decide whether authorities had a right to take Nguyen's money.

"You can have $50 and decide to buy drugs with it," Ohlson concluded. "But until you by the drugs, there's no crime."

Ohlson says he has heard of several other similar cases, where people had their money seized even though they were not charged with a crime. So far, only one known lawsuit has been filed.