SEWARD – Four hundred and fifty-five miles of Interstate 80 run through Nebraska. But one 24-mile stretch has become nationally known – or notorious – for a type of traffic stop that sends millions to a single Nebraska county and its sheriff’s department.
In August 2020, flashing police lights stopped Christopher Bouldin’s van on this short ribbon of road as he headed west through Seward County. Within minutes, Bouldin found himself standing with his dog on the westbound shoulder.
Seward County deputies had just found $18,000 in cash rolled up in a blue sleeping bag in his backseat. It’s drug money, they alleged. It’s money for my trip to Colorado, Bouldin responded.
There, on the side of the road, 1,300 miles from his Virginia home, in a state where Bouldin knew no one, a sheriff’s deputy handed him a form.
You can sign this piece of paper, abandon the $18,000, avoid arrest and continue on to Colorado, he says he was told.
Don’t sign, and you will go to jail. You could face felony charges. Your van will be towed. Your dog will be taken to the pound.
“They were trying really hard for me to sign that,” Bouldin said.
Traffic stops like these, where passing motorists are pulled over, searched and asked to turn over any cash that’s found, are big business in Seward County, population 17,692.
Here, money is routinely seized without anyone being charged or proven guilty of anything. The sheriff’s department has specialized in and perfected the practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, despite a 2016 law meant to ban it in Nebraska.
One out of every three civil forfeiture cases in Nebraska’s state courts happens in Seward County, according to a Flatwater Free Press analysis of a decade of court records and a data request provided by the Nebraska Judicial Branch.
Nearly all begin when a Seward deputy stops a driver on I-80. Nearly all involve an out-of-state driver. And nearly all the seized money ends up in police hands, after drivers – faced with a split-second choice between money or jail – sign the form and abandon their cash.
In the past five years, Seward County law enforcement has hauled in $7.5 million from forfeitures, according to county financial records and Department of Justice annual reports. That’s second in the state only to Lancaster County, which has a population nearly 20 times larger. [ Read more: How we reported this story ]
Some of that money comes from criminal cases, where a person has drugs or guns in the car and is eventually convicted.
But, in Seward County, much of that money pours in from civil forfeiture cases like Bouldin’s.
Many in law enforcement, including Seward County Sheriff Mike Vance, say civil forfeiture is an important tool to take money, drugs and weapons out of the hands of criminals.
“The point is that we’re trying to dismantle these criminal organizations,” said Amy Blackburn, an assistant U.S. attorney. “You can maybe take off a load of drugs, but if you take off their money, you’re crippling their ability to conduct their criminal activity.”
To defense attorneys and advocates, civil asset forfeiture is little more than a law enforcement money grab. It’s a practice, they say, that allows police and prosecutors to avoid going after drug kingpins and instead prey on individual citizens – who may or may not have done anything wrong.
“Citizens can have their property taken from them without ever being accused of a crime, or convicted of a crime, and that is simply not our American system of justice,” said Louis Rulli, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s led to so many abuses.”
Bouldin didn’t know any of this as he stood on the westbound shoulder of I-80, wondering what he should do, wondering if his next decision would make his $18,000 disappear or land him in jail.
One thought, he says, kept repeating on a loop in his head.
“I can’t believe I’m getting robbed.”
No drugs. No weapons. Lots of cash.
It started when Bouldin got pulled over for following too closely.
The deputy first asked Bouldin to sit in the patrol car while he printed the traffic violation warning.
Then he asked if he could search Bouldin’s rental van.
Bouldin refused, as he’s legally allowed to do. That’s when the deputy summoned a drug dog. A sniff of the car indicated the presence of drugs, giving deputies probable cause for a search.
They didn’t find drugs. They didn’t find weapons.
They did find Bouldin’s $18,000.
“I was planning on going to the casino and gambling, and just having a good vacation, possibly buying a car out there,” Bouldin told the Flatwater Free Press. He also said he was going to buy marijuana – legal in Colorado – but only for personal use while there.
If he’d been stopped elsewhere in Nebraska, he might have been written a traffic ticket and told to carry on with his drive. Not in Seward County.
“It appears that Seward County is making this a focal point of their enforcement tactics. Because I don’t see it very often from any other counties along the interstate,” said Daniel Stockmann, a Nebraska defense attorney who specializes in interstate drug cases. “It doesn’t surprise me that Seward County is the leading county in these types of proceedings.”
In the past decade, Seward has seized money in at least 90 state civil forfeiture cases, nearly double any other Nebraska county. In those cases, they initially seized a total of $2.2 million from motorists.
Drivers rarely fight to get their money back. Those who do rarely win, according to court records.
The $2 million kept by the county was split. Half went to a state fund for schools. Half went to a county fund overseen by a board of police chiefs, the Nebraska State Patrol, the county attorney and the sheriff.
Records from meetings of that board, held at a Pizza Kitchen in Milford, detail how they decided to spend the seized dollars. They bought stun guns and bulletproof vests for the Seward and Milford Police Departments. They bought a sheriff’s cruiser with the words, “Paid for by drug proceeds” emblazoned on the back. They bought a $18,000 drone for the Nebraska State Patrol. And they recently spent $15,000 on two ballistic shields, bought after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
“It’s in-need things that would have ordinarily come out of the general budget,” said Blake Swicord, coordinator of the Seward-based Homeland Security task force. “It saves the taxpayers money.”
The highway seizures that net this money often start when a Seward County deputy alleges a minor traffic violation – a car speeding, or improperly changing lanes, or like Bouldin, following too closely.
“We stop people for those three contributing factors a lot, all day long,” Swicord said. “And then we assess them.”
The deputy will issue a warning or ticket for the traffic violation, often asking drivers to sit in the patrol car while they complete paperwork.
They’ll ask basic questions. Where are you headed? What do you plan to do there?
The goal: looking for “indicators of criminal activity,” said Seward County Sheriff Mike Vance.
“The passenger and the driver may not know each other very well,” Vance said. “Sometimes, you ask them where they’re headed to, they don’t know…they borrowed the car, they don’t know the name of the person who owns the car. Things like that will raise flags.”
As deputies ask questions, they pay attention. Does the person seem nervous? Do they have a prior criminal record? How much luggage do they have? Can the deputy smell drugs? Does the vehicle have an air freshener hanging from their rearview mirror?
“All of that becomes part of a math equation,” Swicord said.
Defense attorneys and advocates argue those indicators can be weak. One 2016 case in Seward County cited a “large amount of fast food wrappers in the vehicle” as an indicator. Another in 2015 cited a “six pack of Red Bull energy drinks.”
“What they’re really describing is totally innocuous things that lots of people do,” said Dan Alban, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice.
In Bouldin’s case, deputies say that two prior marijuana misdemeanors, the drug dog and other reasons gave them probable cause to search his van. Then, a roadside search of texts on his phone and the fact he was going to Colorado made them believe the money was connected to drugs. Enough, they say, to present him with a form asking him to give up the $18,000.
Of course, driving with any amount of cash is legal.
“It’s not illegal to transport currency,” Swicord said. “If everything made sense, and there weren’t indicators of criminal activity, you wouldn’t need to be searching the car.”
A controversial form
Bouldin’s $18,000 got zipped into an evidence bag. That’s when the Seward County deputy pulled out the form, offering Bouldin the choice to surrender his money, or face potential arrest.
In the past decade, 75% of Seward County’s state civil forfeiture cases happened after a driver signed a similar form, according to the Flatwater Free Press analysis.
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.
“They have to decide right then and there: Do they want to…risk being prosecuted for a felony?” Stockmann said. “I think a lot of people make the decision on the fly to just abandon the money and move on.”
Wendy Elston, Seward County attorney, said that a motorist who signs an abandonment form is given a court date where they can fight to get their money back.
“I just look at it as a piece of evidence,” she said. “It’s just a piece of paper to me, it’s not determinative.”
But it may not look that way to a driver signing the form along the side of I-80.
One version of the form used in Seward County says a person must “abandon all claims to the above-described merchandise, and waive any further rights or proceedings.”
This can confuse and mislead motorists, Rulli said.
“How many motorists never challenge it, never go to court, because they’ve signed a document giving up their right to contest and go to court?” he said.
Vance disputes the idea that Seward County uses the form as a pressure tactic. Drivers readily admit guilt, even before the abandonment form is introduced, he said.
“Surprisingly, a lot of them will admit what they’re doing. Sometimes they’ll say, ‘that’s not my money, I’m just getting paid to haul it,’” Vance said.
In 2016, a man pulled over with $14,000 told deputies: “I know you’re going to take the money and let me go, so just get it done. I’ve been through this with Homeland Security before, so just give me the disclaimer,” according to court records.
But another driver, Kenan, pulled over by Vance in 2019, said the interaction felt more like “extortion.” He was pulled over in 2019 with a small amount of drugs and $5,477.
Kenan told the Flatwater Free Press that, like Bouldin, he was given two choices: Be charged with two felonies and taken to a county jail 1,000 miles from home, or surrender the money and sign a form admitting guilt – a choice he believed would make it impossible to fight for the money later. He agreed to be quoted using only his first name because he’s now in college and looking for a job.
“He told me if I worked with him, then I wasn’t going to get in any trouble…as long as we signed a paper saying the money wasn’t ours, he would let us leave and drop the charges,” he told the Flatwater Free Press. “I didn’t want a felony charge in Nebraska. It seemed like a good deal to me.”
These sort of reactions are common, said Joe Jeanette, a criminology and criminal justice adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Losing cash in exchange for avoiding a felony is “the cost of doing business for some of these drug dealers,” he said.
Tommy Garrett, a Republican former state senator from Bellevue who tried reforming Nebraska forfeiture laws, criticized the continued use of abandonment forms.
“Sign an abandonment form, and law enforcement gets to keep your money, no muss no fuss? Allowing someone to bribe their way out of a crime? It doesn’t seem right to me,” the former lawmaker said.
Other court records and interviews with those pulled over in Seward County show that sometimes the form startles and angers motorists – and sometimes they claim feeling pressured to sign.
One driver in February 2015 said he signed an abandonment form out of fear, when deputies brought up Homeland Security and possible felony charges. He later fought for the seized $10,400 in court. Another, arrested for possession of drug currency in January 2022, said prosecutors told his lawyer that if he abandoned the money found in his car, the criminal case would “go away.” A passenger in 2021 wrote in court records that “I felt pressured, the officer was basically telling me or forcing me to deny everything to save my back.”
Bouldin made his decision while standing on the shoulder of I-80 as cars whizzed by. He decided he wasn’t worried about the felony charges – there was nothing illegal in his van. He wouldn’t sign.
The Seward County deputies didn’t arrest him, as they had said they would. But they did seize his cash while charging him with a misdemeanor for possessing drug money – charges that were later dropped.
The county attorney continued with the seizure in civil court in order to keep the $18,000. Bouldin received only a warning for the traffic violation that started it all.
Stories of seizure along I-80
In January 2022, Karl Pittman was pulled over for following too close and turn signal violations. Pittman was on his way from New Jersey to Las Vegas to buy property, he said in an interview.
A Seward County deputy searched his car and found $20,500 in money orders and duffle bags that deputies described as being “designed to trap the odor of narcotics,” according to an arrest report. While a drug detecting dog signaling the presence of narcotics, they found none.
Pittman was arrested for possession of drug currency, and his money orders were seized.
Seward County officials later asked Pittman, through his lawyer, to voluntarily abandon his money, he said.
“They told my lawyer, ‘You can just let us have the money and everything will go away,’” Pittman said. “I said absolutely not. You’re not going to extort me for my money, are you out of your mind?”
His case was later dismissed.
What happens during a highway seizure stop?
On Jan. 31, 2022, Karl Pittman was pulled over by Seward County Deputy David Frye for following too closely and turn signal violations, according to an arrest report. Pittman recorded the traffic stop. Frye questioned Pittman about his travel plans criminal history. Then, Frye summoned a drug detecting dog. The dog indicated the presence of narcotics, according to the arrest report, giving deputies probable cause to search the vehicle. Deputies found no drugs, but did find $20,500 in money orders. They placed Pittman under arrest.
In February 2015, Darius Endres and a friend were driving from North Dakota to Colorado. They planned to gamble and catch a Minnesota Wild hockey game in Denver, Endres said.
They were pulled over for speeding by Vance, before he became sheriff. Vance found $10,400 in the car, according to court records.
“He used big words, like Homeland Security,” Endres said. “As soon as he told me he was keeping my money, I should have called an attorney.”
Endres signed an abandonment form. He then fought in court for his money. He won his money back, but most of it, he says, ended up going to lawyers’ fees.
Sharoid Roach Jr. and Sashiana Hemphill-Lee
In July 2021, Sharoid Roach Jr. and Sashiana Hemphill-Lee were pulled over and had $11,531 seized. In court records filed after the traffic stop, Hemphill-Lee wrote: “I felt pressured, the officer was basically telling me or forcing me to deny everything to save my back.”
Roach wrote: “The money I got took from me came from my business clients…the office tricked the person with me and made her sign off rights to the money.”
A loophole the size of Seward County
Less than three miles off the interstate where Bouldin and many others are pulled over sit two aluminum buildings surrounded by corn and soybean fields.
You could confuse these for farm buildings, if not for the multi-story antenna tower and the sheriff cruisers parked out front.
This is the nerve center of Seward’s interdiction task force, where it trains K-9 units for counties throughout Nebraska and stores specialized equipment and seized cars.
Last year, using funds from forfeiture, the department bought the building outright for $806,000.
Seward’s history with highway seizures goes back nearly 20 years. In 2004, former Sheriff Joe Yocum was asked by county commissioners to look into revenue streams that weren’t taxpayer dollars.
He learned about highway interdiction. He realized that Seward County is bisected by I-80.
“That there was an opportunity,” Yocum said.
Seward deputies have since regularly seized pounds of cocaine, meth and marijuana, stolen guns and vacuum-sealed stacks of cash. They’ve posted pictures of their hauls on Facebook. They’ve rescued human trafficking victims, Vance said, and pulled over suspects wanted for murder.
But they also encounter drivers like Bouldin – drivers with no drugs, just cash. Cash that deputies can and do seize.
“It’s patently wrong when you take people’s assets without charging them of a crime,” Garrett said. “If law enforcement is doing their job, and really think that this is drug related, then by God, they should charge the person and convict the person.”
Sharing photos of seized cash, guns and drugs
Since joining a federal task force in 2019, the Seward County Sheriff’s Department has seized 51 firearms, hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine, nearly 5,000 pounds of marijuana, and more off of Interstate 80. The biggest hauls – a combination of drugs, guns and money – often end up on the department’s Facebook page.
In 2016, Garrett led an effort to change Nebraska’s forfeiture laws. The bill, when passed, led state senators and civil liberties advocates to believe they had abolished state civil asset forfeiture.
The 2016 law was designed to require a criminal conviction before the state could seize money, according to the bill’s statement of intent.
But the Legislature left two loopholes. Seizures over $25,000 could circumvent state law entirely by being adopted into federal court.
And law enforcement could still seize assets under state law if evidence connected the cash to drugs – even if there are no drugs in the car.
That allowance, unnoticed by the bill’s proponents, left an opening for Nebraska police to continue with civil forfeiture, said Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice.
It’s the legal tactic Seward County now uses far more often than any other county in Nebraska.
“It’s absolutely frustrating,” said Laura Ebke, a former senator who sat on the Judiciary Committee at the time and is a registered Libertarian. “You know what your intent was. To think that we got partway there, and then missed it because of this one little loophole that we didn’t get included.”
After Vance was elected in 2018 – unseating his boss, Yocum – the county’s use of civil asset forfeiture grew.
Seward and four other departments joined a new Department of Homeland Security task force focused on spotting crime on interstates and highways.
Today, Elston, whose county attorney’s office gets a slice of forfeiture funds, estimates that the criminal cases that emerge from highway stops take up at least a third of her office’s workload.
A civil forfeiture often ends up being faster and cheaper, she said.
“The person is going to be sitting in jail potentially, pending a criminal case…Then they’re going to get a court-appointed attorney, possibly. It’s taking up court resources,” Elston said. “That’s not going to be the only reason that I would do it, but it plays in that little mental checklist that I do.”
Easier and quicker don’t make it just, said Jenna Bentley, director of government affairs for the Goldwater Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for individual liberties.
“You can see how from a prosecutor’s standpoint, especially one who’s really busy, that might be enticing,” Bentley said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s the right path, and it certainly doesn’t justify allowing that violation of a person’s due process rights to happen.”
In 2021 alone, Seward County seized a combined $2.3 million through civil forfeiture in state and federal court, according to a report to the state auditor. [ Read more: How we reported this story ]
On a single September 2022 morning in the Seward County Courthouse, Judge James Stecker approved the civil forfeiture of $83,187 from five separate cases, all from people not convicted of a crime.
“We return very little money because we make very good cases,” Swicord said. “If it’s not rock solid, we’re not going to take it.”
Money seized by civil forfeiture in Seward County is also rarely returned because it’s difficult and costly to fight.
If an individual tries to fight, the burden of proof is shifted to them, not the state. Because the case is civil, there’s no right to a public defender.
Bouldin fought, maybe harder than any motorist ever stopped in Seward County.
He contested the decision in district court, and lost. He appealed. He spent an additional $3,500 on a lawyer. He took his case all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court. He lost again.
The court upheld the district court’s decision – Seward was justified in seizing his money.
“I was just angry,” Bouldin said about finding out he’d lost his $18,000 for good. “Imagine a volcano erupting, that’s how I felt.”