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April 20, 2014

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US must pay lawyer fees over $1 million seizure

Updated Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 | 3:06 p.m.

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The federal government must pay nearly $40,000 to cover the legal fees of a California woman who successfully sued to reclaim more than $1 million of her money seized during a Nebraska traffic stop, a judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon, who is based in Nebraska, on Monday ordered the government to pay $39,035 to cover Tara Mishra's legal bills in the fight over the money, which she said is her life savings earned over more than a dozen years as an exotic dancer.

The case has drawn attention to civil forfeiture laws that permit law enforcement to seize money and property from people suspected of crimes. The laws have a lower standard of proof than criminal cases, and critics say they're increasingly being used to take property and cash from people who are never charged with a crime.

That was the case with Mishra, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. She was 33 when a Nebraska trooper seized the money during a March 3, 2012, traffic stop on Interstate 80 near North Platte. Police handcuffed and detained a husband and wife, who told officers that Mishra had given them the money to invest in a New Jersey nightclub.

The couple were released without charges, but only after agreeing to relinquish the cash. Officials said a drug-sniffing dog had indicated drug residue on the cash and that the large amount meant the money was obtained in the illegal drug trade.

But Mishra showed she had claimed the earnings on tax returns and proved details about an agreement she had to buy part of the New Jersey nightclub. The government's claim that the money was tainted with drug residue was of little value, the judge said, as there is a belief that nearly all cash in circulation is drug-tainted.

Monday's order covered the 106 hours her attorney, Roger Diamond, worked on the case at a rate of $500 an hour.

"The court would generally not make an award of $500 per hour as an attorney fee, as that is not the going rate for most attorneys in this district," Bataillon wrote. "However, it is clear that claimant benefited from having a California attorney, as California law issues were implicated in this case."

Mishra has already gotten a check for the more than $1.07 million, plus "less than $2,000" for interest, Diamond said Tuesday. If Mishra's money had been in a bank for the amount of time the government held it, even drawing only 1 percent interest, she would have made more than $10,000 on it.

But Diamond said he is just pleased the money has been returned.

"We're not going to quibble about the minimum interest," he said. "If that's the law, that's the law."

Messages left for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Omaha were not immediately returned Tuesday.