RENO — A rural Nevada sheriff’s deputy is accused of stopping travelers on a lonely stretch of Interstate 80 and confiscating tens of thousands of dollars for the county without bringing charges, according to two federal lawsuits.
Two motorists who were traveling separately through northern Nevada’s high desert last year offer strikingly similar accounts of their stops by the same Humboldt County deputy near the town of Winnemucca, about 165 miles east of Reno.
Neither search produced drugs or an arrest, but in one case Deputy Lee Dove took a briefcase filled with $50,000 and in the other he seized $13,800 and a handgun, according to the lawsuits filed in US District Court in Reno.
Both men said they were told they’d be released with their vehicles only if they forfeited their cash.
‘‘It’s like Jesse James or Black Bart,’’ said longtime Reno defense lawyer John Ohlson, who filed suit on behalf of Tan Nguyen, 37, of Newport, Calif.
The lawsuits say the cash seizures are part of a pattern of stopping drivers for speeding as a pretext for drug busts, which violates the Constitution. They maintain that Dove, Sheriff Ed Kilgore, Humboldt County, and its prosecutors condone the practice of seizing assets regardless of criminal prosecution.
Dove’s report said he had the money counted at a bank, then gave it to the district attorney’s office ‘‘for asset/seizure/forfeiture.’’
Nguyen told Dove he won the money at a casino on the way to visit his cousins in California, according to Dove’s report, but Dove told Nguyen he suspected that the money was obtained illegally.
Nguyen was given a written warning for speeding but wasn’t cited.
Ken Smith, who lives near Denver, tells a similar story about his speeding stop on Dec. 16.
‘‘It’s pretty scary to be out in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road and be told all your stuff is going to be taken away,’’ said attorney Jeff Dickerson, who filed a suit last month on Smith’s behalf.