Using loophole, Seward County seizes millions from motorists without convicting them of crimes

June 15, 2023, 4 p.m. ·

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A Seward County deputy in a discreetly marked K-9 unit pulls over a Mercedes SUV on May 24, just west of Nebraska Highway 15 on eastbound Interstate 80. (Photo by Eric Gregory/Flatwater Free Press)

Seward County routinely seizes money from motorists on Interstate 80, keeps the cash – and never convicts the drivers of a crime.

The county’s sheriff’s department and county attorney use this practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, so often that a third of all cases of this kind in Nebraska state courts come from Seward County, population 17,962, a Flatwater Free Press analysis of court records shows.

The county has hauled in $7.5 million in forfeited cash in the past five years, some of it from civil forfeitures that state lawmakers thought they banned in 2016.

In Seward County, nearly all civil forfeitures begin when a deputy stops an out-of-state driver on the county’s 24-mile stretch of Interstate 80. Much of this money ends up in law enforcement hands, after drivers – faced with a split-second choice between money or jail – often sign a form and abandon their cash.

Many in law enforcement, including Seward County Sheriff Mike Vance, say civil forfeiture is an important tool to take money out of criminal hands.

“The point is that we’re trying to dismantle these criminal organizations … if you take their money, you’re crippling their ability to conduct their criminal activity,” said Amy Blackburn, an assistant U.S. attorney.

Christopher Bouldin’s $18,000 zipped into an evidence bag, after Seward County deputies searched his rental van and found the rolled up cash. Bouldin challenged the forfeiture up to the Nebraska Supreme Court, but ultimately lost his money. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Bouldin)

Some defense attorneys and advocates say civil asset forfeiture is little more than a law enforcement money grab. The practice allows police and prosecutors to go after individual citizens who may not have done anything wrong, they say.

“Citizens can have their property taken from them without ever being accused of a crime, or convicted of a crime, and that is simply not our American system of justice,” said Louis Rulli, a University of Pennsylvania law professor.

Christopher Bouldin, pulled over in August 2020 for following too closely, didn’t know anything about civil asset forfeiture when he stood with his dog on the westbound shoulder of I-80. Seward County Sheriff’s deputies had just searched his rental van, finding no drugs or guns, but locating $18,000 in cash rolled in a blue sleeping bag.

They alleged it was drug money. He argued that it was for his trip to Colorado – he was driving west from Virginia – and for the potential purchase of a car.

Deputies zipped the cash in an evidence bag and then produced an abandonment form. They gave him a choice, Bouldin said.

Sign this form, give up the cash and continue toward Colorado. Don’t sign, and you’re subject to felony charges.

“I can’t believe I’m getting robbed,” Bouldin said he remembers thinking.

In the past decade, Seward has seized money in at least 90 state civil forfeiture cases, nearly double any other Nebraska county. In those cases, they initially seized a total of $2.2 million from motorists. (Other cases are tied to partnerships with federal law enforcement, while still others result in criminal charges, often when guns and drugs are also located.)

The $2 million eventually kept by the county was split, half to a state schools fund and half to a county law enforcement fund.

That fund bought stun guns and bulletproof vests for the Seward and Milford Police Departments, a sheriff’s cruiser and an $18,000 drone for the Nebraska State Patrol. It recently spent $15,000 on two ballistic shields after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

The highway seizures that net this money often start when a Seward County deputy alleges a traffic violation – speeding, improperly changing lanes, or like Bouldin, following too closely.

The deputy then asks the stopped driver basic questions. Where are you headed? What do you plan to do there?

Deputies note if the person seems nervous, how much luggage they have and if the vehicle smells of drugs.

They’re looking for “indicators of criminal activity,” said Vance, Seward County Sheriff.

“Sometimes, you ask them where they’re headed to, they don’t know…they borrowed the car, they don’t know the name of the person who owns the car. Things like that will raise flags,” he said.

Defense attorneys and advocates argue those indicators can be weak. One case in Seward County cited a “large amount of fast food wrappers in the vehicle” as an indicator. Another cited a “six pack of Red Bull energy drinks.”

“What they’re really describing is totally innocuous things that lots of people do,” said Dan Alban, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice.

A controversial form

In the past decade, 75% of Seward County’s state civil forfeiture cases happened after a driver signed a form similar to the one Bouldin was handed, according to the Flatwater Free Press analysis.

These abandonment forms are constitutionally questionable, critics say. In the Omaha metro, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office no longer uses them. Five states, including Wyoming, have banned them.

“They have to decide right then and there: Do they want to…risk being prosecuted for a felony?” said Daniel Stockmann, a Nebraska defense attorney who specializes in interstate drug cases. “I think a lot of people make the decision on the fly to just abandon the money and move on.”

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A Seward County deputy in a subtly marked K-9 unit monitors eastbound traffic on Interstate 80 just east of the County Road 322 overpass on May 24. (Photo by Eric Gregory/Flatwater Free Press)

Wendy Elston, Seward County attorney, said that a motorist who signs an abandonment form is given a court date where they can fight to get their money back.

“I just look at it as a piece of evidence,” she said. “It’s just a piece of paper to me, it’s not determinative.”

But it may not look that way to a driver signing the form on I-80.

One version of the Seward County form says a person must “abandon all claims to the above-described merchandise, and waive any further rights or proceedings.”

This can confuse motorists, Rulli said.

“How many motorists never challenge it, never go to court, because they’ve signed a document giving up their right to contest and go to court?” he said.

Vance disputes the idea that Seward County uses the form as a pressure tactic. Drivers often readily admit guilt, even before the form is introduced, he said.

In 2016, a man pulled over with $14,000 told deputies: “I know you’re going to take the money and let me go, so just get it done. I’ve been through this with Homeland Security before, so just give me the disclaimer,” according to court records.

Losing cash in exchange for avoiding a felony is “the cost of doing business for some of these drug dealers,” said Joe Jeanette, a University of Nebraska at Omaha criminal justice professor.

Other Seward County court records show that sometimes the form startles motorists – and sometimes they claim feeling pressured to sign.

One driver said he signed an abandonment form out of fear, when deputies brought up Homeland Security and possible felony charges in 2015. He later fought for the seized $10,400 in court. Another, arrested for drug money in January 2022, said prosecutors told his lawyer that if he abandoned the money, the criminal case would “go away.”

In August 2020, Bouldin refused to sign the abandonment form as he stood on the shoulder of I-80.

The Seward County deputies didn’t arrest him, as they had said they might. But they did seize his cash while charging him with a misdemeanor for possessing drug money – charges that were later dropped.

The county attorney continued with the seizure in civil court to keep the $18,000. Bouldin received only a warning for a traffic violation.

A loophole the size of Seward County

Less than 3 miles off the interstate sit two aluminum buildings surrounded by corn and soybean fields. This is headquarters for Seward’s interdiction task force, where it trains K-9 units for counties throughout Nebraska and stores specialized equipment and seized cars.

Last year, using forfeiture funds, the department bought the building for $806,000.

Seward’s history with highway seizures goes back to 2004, when county leaders asked former Sheriff Joe Yocum to look for new revenue.

He learned about highway interdiction. He knew Seward County is bisected by I-80.

“That there was an opportunity,” Yocum said.

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Since joining a federal task force in 2019, the Seward County Sheriff’s Department has seized 51 firearms, hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine, nearly 5,000 pounds of marijuana, and more off of Interstate 80. The biggest hauls – a combination of drugs, guns and money – often end up on the department’s Facebook page. (Photo courtesy of the Flatwater Free Press)

Seward deputies have since regularly seized pounds of drugs, stolen guns and vacuum-sealed stacks of cash. They’ve rescued human trafficking victims, Vance said, and pulled over murder suspects.

But they also encounter drivers like Bouldin – drivers with no drugs but cash that deputies then seize.

“It’s patently wrong when you take people’s assets without charging them of a crime,” said former state senator Tommy Garrett. “If law enforcement is doing their job, and really think that this is drug related, then by God, they should charge the person and convict the person.”

In 2016, Garrett, a Republican from Bellevue, passed a law that he, other state senators and civil liberties advocates believed abolished civil asset forfeiture. The bill’s statement of intent said it required a criminal conviction to seize money.

But the Legislature left two loopholes. Seizures over $25,000 could circumvent state law by being adopted into federal court.

And law enforcement could still seize assets under state law if evidence connected the cash to drugs – even if there were no drugs present.

That allowance, unnoticed by bill supporters, left an opening for Nebraska police to continue with civil forfeiture, said Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice.

It’s the legal tactic Seward County now uses far more often than any other Nebraska county.

“It’s absolutely frustrating,” said Laura Ebke, a Libertarian and ex-senator who sat on the Judiciary Committee in 2016. “To think that we got part way there, and then missed it because of this one little loophole…”

Seward County’s use of civil asset forfeiture has grown since Vance was elected sheriff in 2018.

Seward joined a new Department of Homeland Security task force focused on spotting crime on interstates and highways.

In 2021 alone, Seward County seized a combined $2.3 million through civil forfeiture in state and federal court, according to a report to the state auditor.

On a single September 2022 morning in the Seward County Courthouse, Judge James Stecker approved the civil forfeiture of $83,187 from five separate cases, all from people not convicted of a crime.

“We return very little money because we make very good cases,” said Blake Swicord, coordinator of the Seward-based Homeland Security task force. “If it’s not rock solid, we’re not going to take it.”

Money seized by civil forfeiture in Seward County is also rarely returned because it’s difficult and costly to fight.

If someone tries, the burden of proof shifts to them, not the state. Because the case is civil, there’s no right to a public defender.

Bouldin fought, maybe harder than anyone ever stopped in Seward County.

He contested the decision in district court and lost. He spent an additional $3,500 on a lawyer. He appealed all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court. He lost again. Seward County kept the money.

“I was just angry,” Bouldin said about learning he’d lost the $18,000 for good. “Imagine a volcano erupting, that’s how I felt.”

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