WINNEMUCCA – A class action lawsuit filed in connection with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office controversial highway interdiction program has been settled out of court.
Reno attorney John Olsen confirmed his client and representatives for Humboldt County recently reached a negotiated settlement. Olsen represented all three individuals who filed suits in federal court, and one other man whose money was returned but who was not a named plaintiff.
All of the motorists had cash taken from them as they traveled through Humboldt County.
As part of the settlement, $11,000 plus interest was returned to plaintiff Trevor Paine of Wisconsin. Additionally, all of Olsen’s legal fees incurred while representing Paine were paid.
Also as part of the settlement, a letter will be sent to more than 20 other individuals advising them – in essence – that they may have a refund as part of the settlement. The letter is still in draft stage.
When asked how his client responded to the news the defendants were ready to settle the case, Olsen compared it to finding a $20 bill in an old coat.
He said his clients in general believed the money was long gone. He described them as being so intimidated they felt their money would never come back to them.
The suit alleges Paine’s money was unlawfully converted from his use to the county’s, as well as violations of his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure.
The named defendants were Humboldt County, Ed Kilgore, who was sheriff at the time, and Chief Deputy DA Kevin Pasquale, who was on scene during the interdiction in which Paine’s money was taken.
Paine was subject to a traffic stop on Interstate 80 in November 2013 by interdiction officer Sgt. Lee Dove. The vehicle was searched after Dove’s drug K9 allegedly “hit” on the car – indicating the possible presence of drugs.
However, a search of the car did not turn up any drugs, paraphernalia, or anything else connected to the drug trade. Despite the lack of evidence tying Paine to criminal activity, his $11,000 was seized.
The search of Paine’s vehicle was the second of the day. Several hours before, he was stopped by law enforcement in Utah and subject to a vehicle search. When law enforcement failed to turn up any evidence of drug activity, he was allowed to leave – with his money.
The settlement brings to a close what started 15 months ago with a California man who filed suit over the taking of $50,000.
As a result of that lawsuit, and the release of the dash cam video in which the $50,000 was taken, residents of the county, state and later the nation would begin to question the actions of law enforcement in connection to drug interdiction.
Humboldt County’s program stood out, though, because of the way state law was used to effect the taking of the money. In most programs where money and other property are taken, the matter ends up in court under civil forfeiture statutes.
Using the state’s abandoned property laws, motorists traveling through Humboldt County were given the option to abandon their money to law enforcement or face having their vehicle seized as well as their money.
In the dash cam video in which the $50,000 was taken, the motorist was told repeatedly there would be no court date.
As the motorist and the public came to learn through the lawsuits, Humboldt County’s interdiction program was not part of any civil forfeiture program that provided court oversight. If motorists wanted their money back, they found themselves attempting to negotiate with the Humboldt County DA’s Office, who received the money and was responsible for the accounting.
Sometimes the DA’s Office offered to give back half; sometimes they didn’t.
As Olsen noted, some of the money taken was in amounts of about $1,000, which is not an unusual amount of money to carry if a person is traveling a long distance.
However, it would cost more than that to hire an attorney and fight to get the money returned. Those who filed lawsuits, by and large, had large sums of money taken, amounts significant enough to make the legal battle worth it.
Sgt. Dove told the motorist shown in the dash cam video: You’ll burn up the money on lawyers trying to get this money back.
Olsen said there were two aspects to the Humboldt County cases: the legal one and the political one. The legal case involved the taking of the money and whether repayment was in order.
The political side, he said, involved the exposure the cases received first from the local media, later the state media, and ultimately the national media.
“It would have been an entirely different legal case if light wasn’t shined on it,” Olsen said. “There would have been no political case without media involvement.”
In fact, Paine contacted Olsen after seeing media coverage of other lawsuits.
Additionally, due to the exposure provided by the media, and the subsequent public outcry, politicians at the national and state level are calling for reforms in how interdiction cases are handled.
In Humboldt County the reform was more immediate, Olsen noted, as Ed Kilgore lost his bid for re-election. The new sheriff, Mike Allen, has not reinstated the program and while generally not opposed to highway interdiction, has assured the public the program would not be resumed in its former form.
Olsen said he hoped this was the last of the lawsuits and an end to the highway interdiction program as it was previously managed.