Nebraska County Exploits Civil Asset Forfeiture to Plunder Drivers

If you didn’t notice, I hate civil asset forfeiture like a thousand suns. This story shows us why civil asset forfeiture is a practice we should all hate. It’s one of the most obvious examples of tyranny, and most people don’t even know about it.

I read a report in the Flatwater Free Press about a 24-mile stretch in Nebraska that has become famous for its frequent traffic stop that results in cash seizure without any charges or convictions. Seward County Sheriff’s Department has used civil asset forfeiture aggressively, despite state laws banning it. It is a major revenue source for the county. Civil asset forfeiture, say critics like me, allows law enforcement to target individuals instead of drug kingpins and threatens due process.

Civil asset forfeiture, for those who are unaware, is a legal procedure that allows law enforcement to seize property including cash, cars, and other assets that they suspect to be connected with criminal activity. This can happen without a criminal conviction, or even if the owner of the property is charged with a crime.

The Free Press report began with the story of Christopher Bouldin who was extorted by police during a traffic check.

It is impossible to imagine a more radical change in society and a more evil thing than the conversion of the law into a weapon of plunder.

– Frederic Bastiat

Flashing police lights stopped Christopher Bouldin’s van in August 2020 as he drove west on this small road. Bouldin was standing on the shoulder of the westbound road with his dog within minutes.

Seward County deputy had just discovered $18,000 cash in a blue sleeping bag in the backseat. They claimed it was drug money. Bouldin replied that the money was for his trip to Colorado.

A sheriff’s deputy handed Bouldin a form on the side of the road in a state he didn’t know, some 1,300 miles away from his Virginia home.

He claims he was told to sign the document, give up $18,000 and avoid arrest, then continues to Colorado.

You will be sent to prison if you don’t sign. You may be charged with a felony. Your van will be towed. Your dog will be taken to the pound.

Bouldin stated that “they were really trying to get me to sign this.”

In the report, it is noted that this situation began when Bouldin was pulled over by an officer for driving too close. The officer then asked permission to search the van of a civilian. Bouldin’s refusal led the officer to summon a drug-sniffing dog. These dogs are used by police to create probable cause to search vehicles without consent. Spoiler alert! There were no weapons or drugs in Bouldin’s car.

Bouldin was one of the many people who were targeted while driving through Seward County. The county earned $7.5 million in the last five years.

Money is routinely confiscated without any charges or proof of guilt. The sheriff’s department, which specializes in civil asset forfeiture and has perfected it, is a master at the practice despite Nebraska’s 2016 law that was intended to ban it.

According to an analysis by Flatwater Free Press of a decade’s worth of court records, and data provided by the Nebraska Judicial Branch in response to a request for information from the Nebraska Judicial Branch, one out of three civil forfeiture proceedings in Nebraska state courts occurs in Seward County.

A Seward deputy will stop a driver along the I-80. Most of the time, it’s an out-of-state driver. Nearly all of the money seized ends up in the police’s hands after drivers, faced with the choice of jail or money, sign the form.

The county used its share of the loot to purchase stun guns and other items, including a sheriff’s cruiser, drones, ballistics shields, etc.

Officers often take the money and property of civilians by forcing them to sign forms indicating they are willing to give it up to law enforcement. The officers threaten to take them to jail and charge them with felonies if they don’t. The officer offers them to leave in exchange for the money that they have confiscated.

Does it not sound like an official of the government asking for a bribe?

The Free Press published a number of stories of victims who were also extortion thieves, and had similar stories as Bouldin:

Another driver, Kenan was stopped by Vance and he said that the interaction sounded more like “extortion”. He had a small amount of drugs in his possession, as well as $5,477.

Kenan, who spoke to the Flatwater Free Press, said that, just like Bouldin’s case, he had two options: be charged with two felonies, and sent to a county prison 1,000 miles away, or sign a form admitting his guilt and surrender the money. Kenan believed this would make it difficult to later fight for the money. He consented to only be quoted by his first name, as he is now in college looking for work.

He told him that if I worked for him, I wouldn’t get into trouble… as long as we signed the paper saying that the money was not ours, he’d let us go and drop the charges,” said he to the Flatwater Free Press. “I did not want to be charged with a felony in Nebraska.” I thought it was a great deal.

Civil asset forfeiture has already been abused enough. Seward County, however, has taken the abuse of civil asset forfeiture to an entirely new level. Most of the people caught in this extortion scheme had no contraband with them. Some had only small amounts of marijuana or other narcotics.

Fair enough, the police claim that they have arrested human traffickers and murder suspects on Interstate. This is a good use of government resources but it’s a way to divert attention from the fact they are actively robbing those who don’t deserve such treatment.

Were you or I to engage in such behavior, we’d be labeled robbers, thieves, and locked up. But when someone has a badge or a gun, and if they are in uniform, this kind of behavior is apparently acceptable. Many states have passed laws that limit or eliminate civil asset forfeiture. Nebraska also has, but Seward County found a loophole. State legislators should take action to stop more robberies by the boys in blue.