Seward County roadside seizures: How we reported this story

Records related to civil forfeiture are scattered across multiple state and federal agencies, and are sometimes incomplete. To get as full a picture as possible of asset forfeiture in Seward County and Nebraska, the Flatwater Free Press: 

  • Spoke to nearly three dozen experts, law enforcement officers, former lawmakers, defense attorneys and drivers who have been pulled over in Seward County.
  • Requested a county-by-county breakdown of civil forfeitures from the Nebraska Judicial Branch, finding that Seward County accounted for 1 in 3 forfeitures in the past 10 years. According to division researchers, this number could be a slight undercount.
  • Used a federal Department of Justice database and annual forms submitted by law enforcement agencies to calculate 5 years of forfeiture profits for all Nebraska agencies. This number includes both civil and criminal forfeitures. An analysis by the Institute for Justice found that from 2000 to 2019, 16% of DOJ forfeitures were processed criminally. From 2000 to 2016, 2% of Treasury forfeitures were. 
  • Used county financial records to calculate how much civil forfeiture money went into the county’s drug and education fund over the past 5 years. 

An initial records request sent by reporter Natalia Alamdari to the Seward County Sheriff’s Department was denied – the department pointed the Flatwater Free Press to annual forfeiture reports it files with the state auditor. But those reports, dating back to 2016, were either incomplete or missing entirely. 

Instead, Alamdari read a decade’s worth of court records in Seward County, combing through documents to answer the following questions: 

What agencies were involved? 

78 times out of 90 – 87% of stops – a state civil asset forfeiture stop was initiated by the Seward County Sheriff’s Department. Three other times, Saline or York County Sheriff’s deputies were making stops on the interstate in Seward County, working as task force members.

Did the person sign a notice of abandonment? 

In 68 cases out of 90 – 75% of stops – drivers and passengers signed a form agreeing to abandon any claim to the money seized. 

Did they go through a separate criminal case?

In six of the 90 forfeiture cases, a passenger or driver was also going through a related criminal case. 

How much money was seized from motorists?

The money seized in the 90 cases totaled $2.17 million. 

Did they get their money back? 

80 drivers never got their money back. In total, $2 million was split between a county fund and a fund for Nebraska education.

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How did we calculate that $7.5 million was hauled in by Seward County? 

Equitable sharing allows local law enforcement agencies to seize and forfeit money or vehicles under federal law. Local agencies can receive up to 80% of the proceeds. 

Every year, law enforcement agencies are required to submit an Equitable Sharing Agreement and Certification to the federal government, listing the money received from equitable sharing and how it was spent. These forms list funds from both the Department of Justice and Treasury equitable share programs. 

From 2018 to 2022, the Seward County Sheriff’s Department and county attorney’s office received a combined $7.1 million through equitable sharing, according to each department’s federal forms. 

To calculate money from civil forfeitures at the state level, the Flatwater Free Press used county financial records from 2018 to 2022. Every deposit into the county’s Drug Enforcement and Education Fund that was labeled with a civil case was added up to a total of $364,792.10. 

$364,792.10 (state forfeitures) + $7,130,952.46 (federal) = $7,495,744.56 (combined)

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.

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