At about 11:15 p.m. on July 27, 2018, Anthony Garcia, age 28, and his passenger, Karisma Avila, age 19, were killed in a rollover car crash near Primm, Nevada. Garcia had been driving recklessly, and neither he nor Avila was wearing seatbelts. They were both ejected from the car during the crash and died from blunt-force injuries.
At the scene, police found a duffel bag containing $26,000 in cash as well as two jars filled with 64 pounds of THC cannabinoid oil. Police seized the cash using a procedure known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to take possession of an individual’s assets—such as cash, a vehicle, or a house—if they are suspected of being involved in a crime. In most states, criminal charges do not have to be filed for property to be seized.
In Nevada, law enforcement may receive up to 100 percent of the proceeds of forfeitures. This, critics say, incentivizes police to seize property. Law enforcement agencies are encouraged to spend this money quickly since if an agency’s forfeiture account exceeds $100,000 at the end of a fiscal year, 30 percent of the excess is used to fund local schools. Over the last three years, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (Metro) has used the proceeds from forfeitures to pay for two K9 units, SWAT equipment, and narcotics testing kits.
“We don’t plan on those funds. If they come and we can use them for the public good, then we do,” said Metro’s CFO, Richard Hoggan.
According to a 2017 study by the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), civil asset forfeiture actions “disproportionately target neighborhoods with relatively high levels of minorities and low-income residents.” This is true not only in Nevada but also across the country. I have recently reported on similar reports in New Jersey and South Carolina.
According to the NPRI report, two-thirds of forfeitures carried out by Metro in Las Vegas took place in just 12 of the city’s 48 zip codes. While the average level of poverty in those 12 zip codes is 27 percent, it is only 12 percent in the other 36. The non-white population in the targeted areas is 6 percent higher than in the other areas.
Even if the property owner is innocent, it can be hard to get property back. Since asset forfeiture is a civil and not a criminal matter, there is no legal right to counsel. This means property owners have to pay for their own lawyers. Since most forfeitures in Nevada are for property worth under $1,000, fighting to get the property back in court may cost more than the property is worth.
“It’s a very abusive sort of system,” explains Tom Pitaro, a lawyer based in Las Vegas. He recalled a client whose vehicle was not returned for ten years. “They put it in a lot somewhere, and when he got it back, there were weeds growing out of the engine block.”
The $26,000 found in Garcia’s car is currently tied up in a civil asset forfeiture lawsuit. According to court records, the family of the deceased have been named as possible claimants.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.