Man loses $15K and mobile home in forfeiture settlement after losing suppression hearing, despite proving that he was innocent of the traffic violation that led to his forfeiture case.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Nebraska has agreed to a settlement with forfeiture claimant Hugo L. Soto. By the terms of the settlement, the U.S. Government will return $30,000 of the $45,000 that it attempted to forfeit from Mr. Soto. In exchange, Mr. Soto agreed to cease contesting the forfeiture of the remaining money and of his 2001 Itasca Suncruiser Mobile Home--an RV that Mr. Soto had purchased two years ago for $16,000. Mr. Soto also consented to bear his own legal expenses, mooting his request for an award for attorney fees and other costs conditioned upon substantially prevailing in his federal civil asset forfeiture case.

For Mr. Soto, those expenses are likely substantial. Indeed, in an attempt to suppress evidence resulting from the traffic stop that precipitated the confiscation of his mobile home and currency, Mr. Soto arranged for a civil engineer to demonstrate to the court, in a frame-by-frame reconstruction of the traffic footage, that Mr. Soto had not, in fact, committed the alleged traffic violation--a failure to travel 100 feet after signaling before commencing a lane change--that a Nebraska State Trooper used as the basis for stopping Mr. Soto. A process that sounds like a lot of lawyer time.

Unfortunately for Mr. Soto, however, whatever money spent on proving that he was innocent of breaking Nebraska's traffic laws appears to have been wasted.  While U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl R. Zwart agreed that Mr. Soto had not committed the alleged signalling infraction (she kind of had to as the Government's own expert agreed that Mr. Soto had not violated Nebraska's signalling law), she declined to suppress any evidence resulting from the errant stop. Magistrate Judge Zwart reasoned that either Mr. Soto's subsequent consent to a search of his RV purged the the taint of the errant stop or that the state trooper's mistake about whether a traffic violation had occurred was insufficient to warrant granting Mr. Soto's suppression motion.

That left with Mr. Soto with appealing Magistrate Judge Zwart's order, contesting the merits of the forfeiture, or settling for whatever sum prosecutors would concede. 

In other words, no good options.

An appeal married substantial risk (losing it all if the settlement offer disappeared and Mr. Soto lost) with further substantial expense (more litigation) and the continued detention of all of his money while navigating the appeal process (which could take years).

Accepting Magistrate Judge Zwart's order and fighting the merits of the forfeiture surely had some appeal. The Government had not introduced any evidence that Mr. Soto's cash or his RV were in any way linked to any illicit enterprise--let alone that either was used or intended to be used in the transportation, sale, receipt, possession or concealment of a controlled substance, as the Government's complaint alleged. Indeed, Mr. Soto had never been convicted of any drug crimes. Moreover, a search of the RV merely found the cash. Neither drugs nor drug paraphernalia were found on Mr. Soto or in his RV. True, the Government might have argued that a drug dog alerted to the cash. That could, however, be argued away. Repeated case studies have demonstrated that trained drug dogs alert to drugs and other things--like handler cues and other scents. On the other hand, continuing the fight meant, again, more expense and the risk of losing everything. Moreover, the fight would be fought against the backdrop of a legal system that overwhelmingly favors the prosecution. 

Mr. Soto chose to settle, getting back some of his money.

The remainder of the money and the proceeds from selling the RV will now be split between the agencies involved in the forfeiture. Approximately 20% (less costs) will go into the DOJ's Asset Forfeiture Account. Approximately 80% (less costs) will go to the Nebraska State Patrol for executing the seizure after the phantom traffic infraction. 

At the end of the fiscal year, the The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Nebraska and the Nebraska State Patrol will include the proceeds of the forfeiture in their drug forfeiture tallies. Both are likely to issue press releases extolling their successes in seizing money from drug dealers and how they are 'saving' the public money through forfeiture. Details of any questionable forfeitures will likely be omitted.


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