Lawmakers seek to ban practice allowing Seward County to seize millions from motorists

A June FFP investigation found that in the past decade, one of every three state civil forfeiture cases in Nebraska happened in Seward County, population 17,608. Now, a bill seeks to end the practice statewide.

A new bill in the Nebraska Legislature seeks to ban civil asset forfeiture, a controversial practice that allows the government to seize a person’s property without criminal charges. 

Sponsored by Sen. Tom Brewer, a Republican from Gordon, the bill comes months after a Flatwater Free Press investigation found the Seward County Sheriff’s Office uses civil asset forfeiture more than any other county in the state, hauling in millions after seizing cash from motorists on a 24-mile stretch of Interstate 80

If passed, the bill would force the legal change that legislators thought they accomplished in 2016. 

“We wanted to make sure that things were being done correctly when it comes to the issue of stops and seizures,” Brewer said. “We don’t want to make it harder for law enforcement. What we want to do is make sure that what they do is perceived in a positive light.” 

Sen. Tom Brewer, Republican of Gordon, is sponsoring the bill that would ban civil asset forfeiture in Nebraska. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Danielle Conrad, Democrat of Lincoln. Both the Platte Institute and the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union have worked on the bill. Courtesy photo

Many in law enforcement point to civil forfeiture as an important tool to take money, drugs and weapons out of the hands of drug dealers. The proceeds then go to law enforcement and school funds, helping save taxpayer dollars, they say. Current Seward County Sheriff Mike Vance and his predecessor Joe Yocum, have both spoken of the benefits of forfeiture, and initial attempts at changing the law drew pushback from the Nebraska Attorney General’s office and law enforcement agencies.  

“The best way to hurt these organizations is to take their money,” said Chief Deputy Ben Houchin of the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Department. “That slows them down even more than just getting their drugs.” 

Defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates criticize it as a money grab. It’s a practice, they say, that takes away individual rights and presumes guilt – the opposite of the presumed innocence in criminal court. Both the Platte Institute, a free market advocacy group, and the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union helped craft the new bill. Sen. Danielle Conrad, a Lincoln Democrat, also signed on as a co-sponsor.

A June Flatwater Free Press investigation found that in the past decade, one out of every three civil forfeiture cases in Nebraska’s state courts happened in Seward County. That’s 90 cases in one decade on a small sliver of I-80 just west of Lincoln. 

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The Seward County Sheriff’s Office seized $2.3 million in 2021 alone, when state and federal civil forfeiture cases are factored in, according to a report to the state auditor. Many of those cases fall under Seward’s federal task force with Homeland Security, overseen by Blake Swicord, a fired Georgia state trooper barred from becoming a Nebraska police officer

Seward County Sheriff Mike Vance and his predecessor in that office have both spoken to the Flatwater Free Press about civil forfeiture’s use as an important tool to take money and drugs out of the hands of drug dealers. The proceeds also funds police and schools and saves taxpayer dollars, they and other law enforcement leaders have argued. Courtesy photo

Brewer’s bill would eliminate civil asset forfeiture in state court and replace it with criminal forfeiture. Law enforcement and prosecutors could still seize money, but only after a criminal conviction. 

“Criminal forfeiture is still there, but you have to prove it,” said former Sen. Laura Ebke, now a senior fellow at the Platte Institute. “And that’s as it should be. You’re innocent until proven guilty. That’s up to the state and county to prove.”

Moving forfeitures into criminal court would ensure due process, Ebke said. Unlike in civil court, an individual would have the right to legal counsel.

“If you’ve got enough to grab that money, you should have enough to convict somebody of a criminal charge with the drugs,” said Joe Jeanette, a former Bellevue narcotics officer who now teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “You’re not arbitrarily having somebody walk away from the money … You’re telling the mule, ‘Hey, it’s not as easy to walk away from this stuff now. We’re going to hit you with a criminal charge.'” 

The bill would allow a person to give up their rights to seized money, but that waiver could only come from a prosecuting attorney, not a law enforcement officer. 

From 2013 to 2023, 75% of Seward County’s state civil forfeiture cases happened after a driver signed a form abandoning money on the side of the interstate, according to a Flatwater Free Press analysis of court records.  

These forms, sometimes called disclaimers or on-the-spot waivers, have become controversial. Critics of the practice say they’re constitutionally questionable. In the Omaha metro area, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office no longer uses them. Five states, including Wyoming, have banned them. 

The bill would also require a law enforcement officer to give a person an itemized receipt of whatever was seized. 

In July, three drivers who had been stopped in Seward County alleged that some of their cash disappeared during those traffic stops

Seward County Sheriff Mike Vance said missing money was impossible, citing the body cams and dash cams that run throughout a traffic stop. He denied a Flatwater Free Press records request to release the camera footage from the traffic stops in question. One of the drivers was denied footage from his own traffic stop. 

Civil forfeitures would still be possible through federal court, but only for cases involving more than $25,000. That limitation already exists in state law. 

Forfeiting money through federal court is common practice nationally. Agencies often form task forces with the Drug Enforcement Agency or Department of Homeland Security, and can receive a bigger slice of the forfeited cash. 

From 2018 to 2022, Seward County brought in $7.1 million in criminal and civil forfeitures through its federal partnerships. Lancaster County brought in $9.2 million. Statewide, Nebraska law enforcement agencies raked in $31.7 million in federal adoption over those five years. 

Brewer’s bill mirrors what legislators thought they had passed in 2016, Ebke said. In 2016, former Sen. Tommy Garrett sponsored legislation intending to get rid of civil asset forfeiture in Nebraska. 

The end result, though, still allows law enforcement to seize assets in civil court if they can connect the cash to drugs, even if there are no drugs in the vehicle. 

The new bill’s text is “the gold standard of forfeiture reform,” said Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which helped write the bill. 

Three states – Maine, New Mexico and North Carolina – have passed similar laws eliminating civil asset forfeiture, McGrath said. In New Mexico, an Institute for Justice analysis found that getting rid of civil forfeiture did not lead to an increase in crime or a drop in arrest rates. 

Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which helped write the bill. Three states have recently passed similar laws eliminating civil asset forfeiture. Other states, including Wyoming, ban aspects of the practice used in Seward County, which accounts for a third of all state civil asset forfeiture cases in Nebraska. Courtesy photo

In June, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee unanimously voted to advance a bill with bipartisan support that would limit civil asset forfeiture at the federal level.

Brewer and his bipartisan allies will now attempt to pass the bill banning the practice at the state level, though Ebke, the former lawmaker, said she also expects stiff opposition.

“There will be some who will think that it’s taking away from rightful authority. Some will see it as a monetary loss for the counties,” Ebke said. “It’s designed to protect folks, it’s not designed to be so-called soft on crime.”

But the bill as written fails to capture the complicated nature of forfeiture and seizures, said Houchin with the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office. 

The bill allows agencies to partner with the Department of Justice, but does not mention the Department of the Treasury, which oversees Homeland Security, he said. Both Lancaster and Seward do the bulk of their federal drug interdiction work with Homeland Security. 

And while the bill outlines a criminal forfeiture process for drug crimes and sex trafficking, it doesn’t state a clear way for the state to seize proceeds tied to crimes like credit card theft or stolen catalytic converters. 

For small amounts of cash, Lancaster County already handles most forfeitures through criminal court, Houchin said. 

“Is this bill going to affect us horribly? No,” Houchin said. “But I think it needs to be looked at, needs to be expanded and needs to be thought about a little better before it gets voted on.” 

Brewer said he’s open to the discussion, and thinks a Judiciary Committee hearing will help the Legislature understand the ways in which law enforcement seize money during I-80 traffic stops. 

 “We want to make sure that we help law enforcement, not hurt law enforcement,” Brewer said. “But we also have to hold law enforcement to a very high standard.” 

By Natalia Alamdari

Natalia Alamdari has worked at newspapers throughout the country. Her reporting has taken her to small town shooting ranges in Missouri, contentious school board meetings in Delaware, and aquariums in Texas. Working at the Flatwater Free Press is a return to Nebraska — in college, she spent a summer interning at the Omaha World-Herald. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia and native Texan. When she’s not reporting, you can probably find her baking, petting her cat, or trying out a new crafty hobby.


I’m as straight laced as they come. Never engage in any criminal activity. I “back the blue” when they act within the confines of constitutional law. Civil asset forfeiture is in itself, criminal activity no matter how beneficial to law enforcement it might be. Breaking people’s doors in and ransacking their homes in the middle of the night without a warrant or probable cause would be helpful too but we wouldn’t and shouldn’t tolerate that. Civil asset forfeiture is a crime dressed up as pretend law, color-of-law. No more legitimate than the Easter bunny and as wholesome as the criminals cartels they claim to be trying to hurt.

The boro of sold me out at sheriff sale. I was under appeal in commwelth court. They had a code officer and boro officer in each others pocket my building was under appeal in commwelth court. It still is active appeal.

Cops get the money by threatening a person on the side of the road with arrest for money laundering, car towed and torn apart in a search, loss of custody of children if there are any in the car, or anything they can think of to scare someone into forfeiting their cash.

Definitely no due process. Only a court can truly dispense the required due process, and that’s while an attorney is representing the defendant. Otherwise, it’s a “lawful” scam. If they’re so certain it’s drug related, seize the asset(s) & take it to criminal court.

Civil asset forfeiture is condoned theft, plain and simple. It breaks the very core of our legal system by punishing people without a trial and a guilty verdict. It shouldn’t even be a question or argument that the practice should be banned nation wide. Our founders would have been appalled to see it being used at all!

This reporting was very helpful and now I understand, if you commit a money movement w/o drugs is the focus of the bill. Any amount totaling under $ 25000.00 can be focus as criminal. $25000 and more will be considered civil cases..

Taking money away from these criminal organizations and saying it hurts them is a complete and utter lie It doesn’t hurt these organizations as these organizations make their own money. You go after the production facilities. You go after the product that they make. You stop their production that’s how you contain this That’s probably why we have so many drugs now is because of this thinking that removing the money removes the problem it’s ineffective. The reality is they can get money or they can make their money and you have to go after the product you have to go after the manufacturing facilities You have to stop it from the border.

Highway Pirates…in this day and age…and worst part is…it’s our government…no different than Somali Pirates

I have often wondered about questionable police practices in Seward County. Following my discharge from the U.S. Army as a Military Police officer decades ago, I was stopped by a State Patrol officer for speeding on I-80 near the Milford exit.
The officer was parked stationary on the exit’s overpass observing traffic. A wet snow had begun to build on the interstate’s surface. I checked my car’s speedometer to see if I was speeding, I was traveling at 55 mph (the speed limit back in the day).
The officer proceeded to stop me on the interstate for speeding at 65 mph, he didn’t state that my speed exceeded conditions and I told him I was going 55. He asked me to return to his vehicle where he pointed to the vehicle’s Vascar speed detector that indicated I was traveling at 65 mph. I assumed that the officer didn’t clear the Vascar after a previous traffic stop. I told the officer, “I’m a former MP experienced with the use of Vascar and Vascar doesn’t lie, I was traveling at 55 mph”. I accepted the speeding ticket.
I returned to Seward County for my court date (I was living in Lincoln) and told the Judge my story. The Judge asked me how I was pleading to the charge. I told the Judge, “I plead guilty, because a Judge has to back up the officers. But, it’s important that the Judge know what is taking place outside the court room”.
Apparently, corruption is being stopped in Seward County.

Hobb act, law against exactly this type of shannagan by crooks with badges. Dates back to the union busting of the early 1900’s.

I worked in law enforcement for the state of Indiana and I personally find that the civil forfeiture laws are both corrupt and in violation of current laws.

It allows for seizure if personal property with no evidence. Civil forfeiture is over all criminal crimes and is done by our own law enforcement for crimes that have never been adjudicated. They are just stealing your stuff without legal basis and using it for their purposes.

They need convicted for crimes if they do this falsely.

Asset Forfiture as it is practiced is prohibited by the US constitution. The .man responsible for it’s creation was a US senator who today takes great pride in the fact. He is not bothered in the least by its prohibition by the constitution! That man is Joseph R. Biden!

Tom, try checking your history, as it was passed long before Joe Biden was even elected.
The US Government used forfeiture during the Prohibition years (1920–1933). Police seized vehicles, equipment, cash and other property from bootleggers. When Prohibition ended in 1933, much of the forfeiture activity ended as well. Modern forfeiture was an “infrequent resort” until the last few decades.

Also, S.1762 – Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 was sponsored by Strom Thurman. And Hamilton Fish, Not Joe Biden.

It’s about time they put an end to this what could be an unconstitutional illegal seizure of property. But with the GOP controlling this state, it’s been allowed to go unchecked.



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