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I-80 motorists allege seized money went missing; Seward County Sheriff refuses to reveal footage of stops

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Posted at 4:30 PM, Jul 15, 2023

Three drivers who had money seized by the Seward County Sheriff’s Office after being stopped on Interstate 80 allege that some of their cash disappeared during those traffic stops.

The amount of money seized from them was more than the amount returned or documented in county records, they all told the Flatwater Free Press.

The county’s former public defender told the Flatwater Free Press that at least three other clients have alleged that cash vanished during Seward County traffic stops. An Omaha defense attorney said he’s had multiple clients make similar allegations.

Both attorneys said they didn’t have enough evidence to bring those claims to court – and worried that speaking out would put their clients in increased legal peril.

Seward County Sheriff Mike Vance said it’s impossible that money was stolen, in large part because body cams and dash cams run throughout a traffic stop.

But the sheriff’s department denied a Flatwater Free Press public records request to release the camera footage from the traffic stops in question, video that could potentially prove or disprove the allegations made by the drivers and defense attorneys.

The allegations surfaced during the Flatwater Free Press’ reporting on Seward County’s use of civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize money without convicting drivers of a crime. Seward County law enforcement has brought in $7.5 million from I-80 motorists in the past five years, much of it through civil asset forfeiture.

The county, population 17,692, has accounted for a third of all civil forfeiture cases in state court in the past decade in Nebraska, population 1.97 million.

In an email, Seward County Attorney Wendy Elston said that she had never heard an allegation of theft or disappearing seized money until being asked about it by a Flatwater Free Press reporter.

Blake Swicord, coordinator of the Seward-based Homeland Security task force, said the department has never received a formal complaint related to the allegations.

Vance said he wasn’t surprised by the accusations. But he said it’s “not possible” that money could disappear from a stop. Money can’t be moved from a vehicle unless there are three officers and one supervisor present, he said. Cash is counted on camera when taken into evidence, using a counter that takes a photo of each bill. It’s then counted again by a bank.

And police body cams and dash cameras record everything, he said.

“It’s why we built that process, because we know people are going to make accusations,” Vance said. “That’s the nature of the game, you’re dealing with criminals.”

None of the drivers who spoke to the Flatwater Free Press were convicted of a crime in Seward County.

Two days after Vance said that camera footage makes the disappearance of seized money impossible, the Flatwater Free Press began filing public records requests for body cam and dash cam footage from the traffic stops.

The sheriff’s department denied all three, though state law often allows officials to release this footage if they choose.

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$18,000 zipped into an evidence bag after Seward County deputies searched Christopher Bouldin’s rental van and found the rolled-up cash. Photo courtesy of Christopher Bouldin

In one case, the records were sealed because criminal charges had been dismissed, Elston said in an email.

In another, the records were deemed “investigative” and not subject to a public records request, even though charges were dropped and a judge approved the forfeiture of money in 2020.

In a third, the department said too many years had passed since the traffic stop, and the records had been purged from the department’s system.

Elston declined a follow-up interview with the Flatwater Free Press this month. Vance did not respond to calls or emails after speaking about the allegations from motorists in May.

Seward County deputies seize money from dozens of drivers every year, seizures that have earned them national recognition from law enforcement organizations.

Three drivers from three different states provided similar, unprompted accounts of cash that went missing during interviews about their Seward County stops.

They were all pulled over on I-80 in Seward County. Deputies searched their vehicles, finding anywhere from a few thousand dollars in cash to $20,500 in money orders. The money was seized. But, the drivers say, the amount of money documented as being seized in court records did not match the amount of money the drivers recalled having in their cars.

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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 for the Flatwater Free Press

In January 2022, Karl Pittman, driving from New Jersey to Las Vegas, was pulled over for following too closely and turn signal violations. According to court records, Seward County deputies seized $20,500 in money orders from his car and charged him with possession of drug currency.

Pittman claims he also had $3,000 taken from a coat left in the passenger seat that was never accounted for in court records.

Pittman, previously convicted on New Jersey drug charges in 2007, thought his attorney would be able to obtain body cam and dash cam footage as part of his criminal trial, he said. But his case was dismissed the day of his hearing. His money orders were returned to him. But according to Pittman, his $3,000 is still missing.

Wanting to track down his missing money, Pittman then filed a public records request with the sheriff’s department for video footage, credentials for the drug dog that smelled his vehicle, and the names of deputies at the scene.

His request was denied by the sheriff’s department and county attorney. Nebraska law allows law enforcement agencies to withhold records tied to investigations, they cited.

In December 2019, Kenan DeHart said he was driving west on I-80 when he was pulled over because officers said his car’s window tint was too dark. DeHart recalls having at least $8,000 in the car, bundled in rubber bands in the side compartment of the passenger door.

On the shoulder of I-80, he signed a form admitting to transporting drugs and drug currency and abandoning the money.

The abandonment form DeHart signed – sometimes called a disclaimer or on-the-spot waiver – is common practice in Seward County forfeitures. The form requires a person to “abandon all claims to the above-described merchandise, and waive any further rights or proceedings.”

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

During his traffic stop, DeHart said he was charged with two felonies for possession of a controlled substance. He said in an interview that he was told if he signed the form and abandoned the money, the charges would be dropped. They were.

The form he signed and subsequent court records document $5,477 taken from his car – less than the $8,000 DeHart remembers having.

He never reported the discrepancy, he said, because he didn’t want to face further legal trouble.

In February 2015, Darius Endres and a friend were driving from North Dakota to Denver to gamble and watch a hockey game, Endres said.

The pair were pulled over in Seward County for speeding. They were never charged with a crime. But their money – $11,500, Endres said – was seized and sealed into an evidence bag.

Later, he said his attorney told him: “They’re saying they counted $1,100 less than what you’re saying.”

On his attorney’s advice, he didn’t mention it in court. The money was a combination of cash already in his home and a recent bank withdrawal – there wasn’t enough of a paper trail to prove he had $11,500, he said.

Endres got $10,400 back. He claims the other $1,100 is still missing.

“If you’re going to travel with a lot of cash, take a picture of how much you have,” Endres said in an interview. “Take video of it, have bank receipts. Just so you can prove to a judge how much money you had on you.”

These allegations sound familiar to Nicole Tegtmeier.

Tegtmeier, former public defender in Seward County, said she could recall at least three clients going through criminal trials who told her they had more money on them than was later reported by Seward County law enforcement.

“There were definitely times when you would read the affidavit, and I would read the amount and they would say, ‘No, that’s not right,’” Tegtmeier said. “It was always generally loose cash. It was generally not money that would have been bundled.”

But her clients already faced criminal trials. The stakes were higher than missing money.

“It’s hard to say, ‘No, your deputy is lying, not my client.’ My client is generally just trying to get out of this in the quickest and easiest fashion possible,” Tegtmeier said. “If I go to the county attorney and I say, ‘well, actually, there was $1,000 more,’ they’re going to say, ‘well, that doesn’t help your client.’”

Clients alleging discrepancies in the amount of money seized “happens more than you would anticipate,” she said. Local attorneys openly discuss it. But none have come up with a good way to address it, she said.

Defense attorney John Berry Jr., CEO of Omaha’s Berry Law, said he has heard similar stories from several clients in Nebraska, including in Seward County. But, he said, there’s never been enough evidence to bring it up in court.

“If we’re going to make an allegation and say someone did something wrong, we have to be able to prove it … but I haven’t had a case like that,” Berry said.

Someone alleging theft by officers would need to be able to prove a chain of custody, Berry said. Who had access to the money aside from the driver? Was everything counted and documented before the traffic stops? Were there any receipts? Was the money in a lockbox accessible only to the driver?

That level of documentation is rare, Berry and Tegtmeier said.

Clients “don’t carry around receipts of, ‘I had $600 of loose cash,’” Tegtmeier said. “There’s no money trail. That was always the issue that we ran into.”

This is why access to body cam and dash cam footage can be so crucial, argue two civil liberties advocates.

“It makes sense to have transparency on both sides,” said Jenna Bentley, director of government affairs at the Goldwater Institute. “Maybe some of (the cash) fell to the ground and wasn’t caught by anyone. If you can go back and watch that video, it kind of ends that speculation.”

Spike Eickholt, government liaison for the ACLU of Nebraska, said body cam footage should be “a tool for the public to observe how law enforcement acts.”

He thinks the allegations of missing money illustrate the problematic nature of Seward County’s widespread use of civil asset forfeiture, where the sheriff and deputies routinely seize large amounts of cash without the due process of a criminal trial.

“It’s just one of the features of the police being in this business of harvesting cash and processing it,” Eickholt said. “There’s always that possibility that one bad actor or several could do the wrong thing.”

Carl Eskridge, longtime chief deputy ombudsman for the State of Nebraska, said his office periodically took calls about property loss stemming from highway stops during his quarter century on the job. They came from multiple counties along the interstate, he said.

But his office didn’t have jurisdiction over sheriff’s departments. With no local citizens review board, the only route for motorists is to complain directly to the Nebraska Crime Commission or the county itself.

“It’s really hard to get at sheriffs’ offices, because the sheriff is an elected official,” Eskridge said. “About the only accountability they have is to the voter.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

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