1/5/2015Tennessee Motorist Fights $18,480 Traffic Stop Seizure
Federal lawsuit seeks the return of $18,480 taken from motorist not charged with any crime by police during a traffic stop.
A Tennessee motorist who committed no crime is fighting in federal court to recover the $18,480 seized from him in a traffic stop. Although El A. Willis was never charged with any wrongdoing, he must mount an uphill legal battle in federal court if he ever wants to see again the cash taken from him by a Monroe County sheriff's detective on February 10.
Magistrate Judge C. Clifford Shirley Jr. held the first hearing in the case last month as federal prosecutors seek permanent confiscation of the funds taken from Willis nearly a year ago. Willis was the passenger in a rented black Chevrolet sedan driven by his girlfriend, Shonta Williams. At around 3pm, Detective Bobby Queen claimed he saw the sedan change lanes without a signal. He ordered the car to pull over. Detective Queen phoned in the stop to the "Blue Lightning Operations Center" which noted that Williams was driving on an expired license (Willis had a valid license).
Detective Queen did a patdown search of Willis and found he had a locked money bag on him. He demanded that Willis open the bag. Willis said he was traveling to Atlanta, Georgia to make a music deal with the cash -- and his rental agreement specified that he was allowed to travel in both Tennessee and Georgia. Detective Queen claimed he smelled marijuana and had a drug dog sniff the car and the money bag. No drugs were found, but because the dog alerted on both the car and the bag, all the cash was seized.
Further testing of the rental vehicle was done with ion swabs, but these swabs were "misplaced" during the investigation. A second swab test on the money yielded a positive result. Federal officials insist that this is plenty of evidence to prove that the money is linked to the drug trade and subject to confiscation, but Willis and his attorney, Philip Lomonaco, argued otherwise.
"The narcotics dog's alert to Mr. Willis' money is not enough probable cause given prior case law," Lomonaco wrote to the court. "The $5000 in United States Currency case highlighted the various evidence that exists showing the large percentage of currency that has been contaminated from drug residue. Therefore, the dog's positive alert is not enough to establish probable cause, especially since the dog alerted to the money after the money was already seized... Ms. Wilson was the reason why the car was stopped in the first place, but the money that was seized to not belong to her, so her actions did not give the police officer probable cause to seize the money of Mr. Willis."
Prosecutors have been trying to find Williams to testify, but certified mail sent to summon her has been returned unclaimed. Prosecutors are trying to use a technicality to deny Willis a hearing because he did not file the proper form. Judge Shirley has yet to rule on the matter.