12/5/2012Louisiana Supreme Court Upholds Seizure of Motorist Cash
Louisiana Supreme Court satisfied that vague evidence suffices to confiscate money from motorists.
Drivers in Louisiana unable to document the source of every dollar they carry could find their money seized by police. The state Supreme Court yesterday ruled officers were right to grab $144,320 from motorist Tina Beers because, in the high court's opinion, she was unable to come up with a credible explanation of where the funds came from.
On January 10, 2009, State Trooper Dupuis pulled over Beers' 1995 Plymouth Voyager minivan on Interstate 10 in St. Martin Parish. Beers traveling with her three children aged between two and seven. The court record no longer preserves the cause of the original traffic stop because Dupuis quickly lost interest once he obtained permission to search the vehicle. The trooper found nine bundles of cash in compartment on the minivan floor. Dupuis knew his department might be able to keep the money, so he called in a drug dog to alert on the bundles of cash.
The state police did keep the money, but there were no drugs in the minivan nor did prosecutors ever find a criminal charge to lodge against Beers. Police believed Beers was acting as a courier for drug dealers, but they never proved it. Instead, it was up to Beers to prove the money was legitimate. Initially, she claimed the money was not hers. This changed several days later when Beers and her sister each filed claims showing, at best, the motorist had about $23,000 in cash at one point and claiming the money should not have been seized.
Beers almost won, as the Court of Appeal ruled there was no probable cause for the forfeiture, something prosecutors had the burden of proving. The judges found suspicion to think the money was of "less than honest origin" but not a shred of evidence that it had anything to do with drugs. The court ordered the money returned to Beers, but the high court stepped in to prevent that from happening. The top court found vague, circumstantial evidence did link the cash to drug crime.
"Here, the state is not seeking to show probable cause for a search or arrest, but probable cause for forfeiture of suspected drug-related property under the act," Chief Justice Catherine D. "Kitty" Kimball wrote for the court. "In his affidavit, Trooper Mire testified the money was bundled with rubber bands, sealed in plastic shrink wrapping, and hidden in the vehicle's floor compartment. He stated based on his experience, such packaging indicates a 'substantial connection between the questionable currency and narcotics transactions.' The claimants presented no evidence to contradict these statements made by Trooper Mire in his affidavit."
The high court also rejected the appellate court's argument that 96 percent of cash in circulation may contain narcotic residue, rendering the drug dog's alert meaningless.
"Even if the claimants had shown a large percentage of currency in circulation contains trace amounts of narcotic residue, they did not show these trace amounts of narcotics would cause a trained police dog to alert," Justice Kimball wrote.
These facts, combined with the "nervous" demeanor of Beers is all it takes to confiscate money, in the state Supreme Court's view.
"Considered individually, the facts set forth in Trooper Mire's affidavit might not amount to probable cause for forfeiture," Justice Kimball concluded. "However, when viewed together, the totality of circumstances establishes reasonable ground to believe the money is connected to drug trafficking and, therefore, subject to forfeiture under the act."
A copy of the decision is available in a 400k PDF file at the source link below.