US court gives B.C. man another chance to prove ownership of $1M seized at Vegas traffic stop

A British Columbia man is getting another chance to prove he is the legal owner of nearly $1 million that Nevada state troopers seized from his rental car during an August 2008 traffic stop near Las Vegas.

Three 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges ruled Monday that U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson in Las Vegas improperly used a possession standard instead of determining ownership before denying Michael Simard’s claim to the $999,830.

The Nevada Highway Patrol said the money was in a duffel bag in the trunk of the rental car Simard was driving from St. Louis to Las Vegas.

“Bags aren’t mine. Money isn’t mine,” Simard wrote on a statement that troopers accepted before confiscating the money and letting him drive away with a warning about speeding. Troopers had clocked him going 79 mph (127 kph) in a 75 mph (120 kph) zone.

“A lot of times, people disclaim ownership at the scene of a stop because police say they can leave,” Simard’s California-based attorney, Ronald Richards, said Tuesday.

But Simard later submitted a sworn declaration that the money — just $170 short of $1 million — belonged to him. The appeals court panel ruled that such an “unequivocal assertion of ownership” should have prompted a more thorough hearing by Dawson.

Court documents say Simard had a Canadian driver’s license and gave a trooper who stopped him on Interstate 15 permission to search the vehicle. Police noted that Simard had a one-way car rental, seemed nervous and gave various accounts about whom he would be meeting and where he would be staying. He had few clothes or belongings with him for what he said was a long cross-country trip.

Troopers summoned a drug-sniffing dog but found no contraband in the vehicle.

Federal prosecutors filed documents in January 2009 seeking to keep the cash. They asserted, based on the troopers’ impressions, that Simard must have been involved in the drug trade.

“They don’t have any evidence of that. None,” Roberts said in response to the alleged drug connection. “The only thing they have is money in a car.”

A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden didn’t immediately say Tuesday whether prosecutors will continue to seek the money. No court hearing was scheduled.
The Las Vegas Sun first reported the appellate court ruling.