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Pro Bono Civil Forfeiture Victory Secures $400,000 and Prevents Seizure of Home

The Nevada Independent article published on January 22 is provided below and available here

In a pro bono civil forfeiture case that reached the Nevada Supreme Court, John Fortin secured for his client a $400,000 settlement from the State of Nevada and Carson City, and ended the State’s attempt to forfeit the client’s home a second time. John has been serving his client since 2021 in collaboration with Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada’s pro bono appellate program. The arduous path includes John’s oral argument on August 8, 2023, before the Nevada Supreme Court in his challenge to Nevada’s civil forfeiture laws on Double Jeopardy grounds. While the settlement resulted in the Court dismissing the case without ruling on potential court-ordered changes to the civil forfeiture process, the priority of the resolution was achieved — to right a civil rights wrong that has impacted a family for many years. 

On January 22, The Nevada Independent continued its coverage of this litigation in the article provided below that also explains how the forfeiture process is the subject of extensive debate, including a bill in the Nevada Legislature as recently as last year, but the Legislature has resisted reforming the process.

Nevada Supreme Court won’t rule on civil forfeiture challenge after settlement,” The Nevada Independent, 01/22/2024

The Nevada Supreme Court will not decide whether the state’s civil forfeiture system is unconstitutional after the family leading the challenge agreed to a six-figure settlement. The family whose Carson City home was seized because of a drug trafficking charge has received $400,000 from the government.

The legal challenge stems from the case of Sylvia and Elvin Fred, who have fought for years to retain control of their Carson City home after the government assumed control of the property from 2019 to 2022 under asset forfeiture, a process where law enforcement takes private property believed to be connected to a crime. Elvin was convicted of a drug trafficking charge in 2015, and officials recovered methamphetamine, firearms and cash from the home, according to the forfeiture application. 

Lawyers representing the family said that Elvin had faced multiple punishments for the same crime — the home seizure and a lifetime prison sentence with the possibility of parole — which they argued violated the state’s double jeopardy laws. 

As part of the settlement terms, the Fred family and prosecutors asked the high court to drop the case. The court dismissed the case January 22, 2024. Prosecutors declined to comment. The family received around $400,000 through the settlement, and the government has dropped efforts to reseize the home (the government had attempted to regain control of the home even after the family retook possession in 2022). The state government paid $350,000, while Carson City’s government covered $50,000. The family has received all the funds, Sylvia said.

In an interview earlier this month, Sylvia said the settlement will get the family “back to square one.” The home had previously served as a place of refuge for Fred family members who were experiencing homelessness, but it had fallen into disrepair and become functionally uninhabitable while under government control. “That’s what the money means to us, is just almost the very beginning,” Sylvia said. “Again, my family can be in a home that was intended for all of our family.”

Sylvia said the family anticipated that it would win the Supreme Court case, but that her priority was her family and the legal process had already taken years. Elvin will be eligible for parole next March. Sylvia said she hopes that he will have a greater chance of success because the home will be livable again. “He does have a home to go to,” Sylvia said.

The settlement means that there will be no court-ordered changes to how the civil forfeiture process operates in the state. The Freds’ lawyers had hoped a court victory would require civil forfeiture proceedings law to be changed and for the process to be included in the original criminal sentencing.

The forfeiture process has garnered pushback across the political spectrum, including from criminal justice reform organizations and libertarian groups that view it as an infringement on due process. But the Legislature has resisted reforms to the process. A bill last year that would have required a criminal conviction before a forfeiture proceeding could start, unless the forfeiture was part of a plea agreement, failed to get a final vote in either chamber. Another bill from the 2021 session that would have placed limits on the practice for low-level drug crimes also failed to pass.

In 2015, legislators required that local law enforcement agencies report their forfeiture and seizure activity annually, and this year, the Legislature passed a bill expanding what should be included in those annual reports. From July 2021 to July 2022, law enforcement agencies in Nevada seized more than $5.5 million worth of property, with nearly $3 million ultimately being forfeited to the agencies, according to a report from the attorney general’s office.

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