Each year, the Lights, Camera, Liberty Film Festival Award recognizes a film by an Atlas Network partner that has utilized engaging storytelling to connect with a strategic and significant audience. The 2022 winner of the award is the Institute for Justice (IJ), for their film Watch Cops Seize Combat Vet’s Life Savings. The film was screened during the Liberty Forum in New York City, and IJ will take home a US$10,000 prize.
The Institute for Justice is a non-profit public interest law firm that engages in litigation, legislative advocacy, grassroots activism, and strategic research to promote and protect constitutional rights. IJ focuses on areas of the law that provide the foundation for a free society, including secure economic liberty, school choice, private property rights, and freedom of speech. IJ also celebrates winning nearly three out of four cases they file, in spite of how complicated litigating against the government is.
The presumption of innocence is a foundational legal principle in the U.S. justice system. But in the film created by the Institute of Justice, viewers learn about a practice in the U.S. called civil forfeiture that not only infringes on the foundation of “innocent until proven guilty” but actually places the burden of proving innocence on the accused.
IJ’s film tells the story of Steven Lara, a retired Marine who was stopped by the Nevada Highway Patrol on February 19, 2022. The interaction started as ostensibly a routine traffic stop. The officer asked Lara a slew of questions, however, including out-of-the-ordinary queries such as where Lara was coming from and why. Eventually, the officer revealed that part of his job was to find people that are smuggling drugs, arms, or other contraband through the state. The officer’s questions then became even more pointed, asking if Lara was in possession of any drugs or weapons, without any evidence to suspect he was doing anything illegal.
Lara continued to be honest and forthcoming with the officer, acknowledging that he had a large quantity of money in his car due to his distrust of banks, and consented to the police searching his car. After about an hour and half, the Nevada Highway Patrol ended up confiscating Lara’s money (a total of US$86,900) based on the unfounded suspicion that the money was tied to the drug trade. This situation is a classic example of civil forfeiture.
The money’s next stop, the film explains, would be “adoption” by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The practice of adoption allows federal law enforcement to take over seizures carried out by state and local authorities. Through an “equitable sharing” program, up to 80% of the seized property goes back to the state or local agency—creating a dangerous incentive for police seizures. In Lara’s case, the forfeiture would provide up to US$69,520 to be directed back to the Nevada Highway Patrol.
In cases of civil forfeiture, the burden is placed on the victim of seizure to prove their innocence. To have any chance of getting their property back, individuals would need to hire a lawyer to navigate the complicated legal process of litigation against the government. In Lara’s case, he was fortunate to have IJ take on the case, but for many, litigation is too costly.
Throughout IJ’s film, the audience has the unique opportunity to see the events of when Lara was pulled over, courtesy of the body- and vehicle-cam footage from the state trooper. Alongside the raw footage, a member of the Institute for Justice team explains the legal context of what is happening.
In the end, Lara’s story is a hopeful one: with help from the Institute for Justice, he was able to have all of his money returned and the national attention his story received led to a Justice Department spokesperson announcing that the government is reviewing current policy on adoptive forfeitures. The Institute for Justice will continue defending individuals like Lara as part of their mission to protect individual constitutional rights.
Watch the Institute for Justice’s film to hear Lara’s full story.
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