The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a district court decision the actions of the NHP and Elko sheriff’s deputies in seizing $167,070 in cash from a motorist’s vehicle were unconstitutional.
The opinion by Justice Stephen Reinhardt also upheld the award of $146,938 in attorneys fees in the case.
The suit was filed after Elko authorities confiscated the money from Straughn Gorman’s motorhome following two successive, coordinated traffic stops on Interstate 80 in January 2013.
He was first stopped on the freeway for a minor traffic infraction. While the trooper was unable to find any evidence of significance and didn’t charge Gorman with a crime or even ticket him, he was suspicious and held him there more than a half hour while checking his background and records before letting him go.
He instead contracted Elko sheriff’s officials asking Gorman be stopped again, with a drug sniffing dog to examine his motorhome. The dog was alerted, causing justification for a warrant. While no drugs were found, bundles of wrapped cash were in the vehicle, and were seized.
No criminal charges were ever filed by the federal government, which moved to keep the money through civil forfeiture.
According to the opinion, “The Supreme Court has made clear that traffic stops can last only as long as is reasonably necessary to carry out the mission of the stop.
“A stop that is unreasonably prolonged beyond the time needed to perform these tasks ordinarily violates the constitution.”
Both stops in Gorman’s case lasted longer than a half hour despite having no evidence to support the delay and, eventually, the search of his vehicle. The opinion states nothing discovered in questioning provided reasonable suspicion to provide cause for a search warrant.
According to the opinion, “the officers’ impermissible gamesmanship is precisely what the Constitution prescribes.”
“In sum, because the currency seized from Gorman’s vehicle was the fruit of the prior violation of Gorman’s 4th Amendment rights, the currency is inadmissible,” it states.
That means, under the order, the money must be returned to Gorman.