DA can’t keep $301K in cash seized during tailgating stop, split Pa. court rules

From Penn Live:

By Matt Miller 

Authorities must surrender more than $300,000 in cash seized during a traffic stop for tailgating because they didn’t prove the money was tied to drug dealing, a divided Commonwealth Court panel ruled Wednesday.

The decision, outlined in the majority opinion by Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, overturns a Monroe County judge’s ruling that prosecutors could seize the cash under the Controlled Substance Forfeiture Act.

As Jubelirer noted, the case hinged on whether police could keep money they found when they pulled over a car “on a known drug route,” but found no illegal drugs and filed no criminal charges.

That’s what happened when a state trooper stopped a Lexus SUV for tailgating on Route 80 on June 11, 2014. The two New Yorkers in the car gave conflicting stories as to what they were doing, police said, and neither of them owned the vehicle.

Corporal Nicholas Cortes said he also became suspicious because there was an “overwhelming” odor of air fresheners coming from the SUV, prayer cards were on the dashboard, the driver had tattoos and both occupants had criminal records.

After the driver consented to a search, police found the $301,360 in cash in vacuum-sealed bundles in a hidden compartment of the Lexus, Jubelirer noted.

When no drugs or paraphernalia were found, police kept the cash and the SUV, but released the driver and passenger. Testing done on the money later showed traces of heroin, cocaine and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Three months after the seizure the district attorney’s office moved to forfeit the cash. Clarissa Vasquez, a New Yorker to whom the Lexus was registered, contested that move and asked that the money be handed over to her.

Vasquez appealed when county Judge Jennifer H. Sibum approved the forfeiture after finding there was a “substantial nexus” between the car, the cash and drug trafficking. Vasquez claimed the seizure amounted to an unconstitutionally “excessive” fine for a traffic violation.

Jubelirer agreed, concluding the prosecution’s forfeiture case suffered from a “drug nexus deficiency.”

The driver and passenger in the Lexus were under no legal obligation to answer any questions from police, so their failure to provide consistent explanations about their activity “is not indicative of illegal drug activity,” Jubelirer wrote.

Also, she found, “the commonwealth has not pointed to any authority, and we can find none, suggesting that the presence of multiple air fresheners and their overwhelming odor, the existence of religious prayer cards in a vehicle, or a person’s tattoos are indicative of illegal drug activity.”

“We agree that finding such a large amount of cash in a vehicle traveling on a known drug route, under these circumstances, is highly suspicious,” Jubelirer wrote. Yet she found the DA “has not established anything more than a suspicion” that the money was tied to drug dealing.

Judge P. Kevin Brobson filed a dissenting opinion which Judge Anne E. Covey joined.

Brobson agreed the drug nexus issue is shaky but said the case should be sent back to county court to determine whether Vasquez really is entitled to the money. He noted that while the Lexus was registered to her, Vasquez was not the SUV’s owner, and that another man’s fingerprints were found on the packaging of the seized money.

Vasquez presented no evidence at the county court forfeiture hearing “to corroborate her bald assertion of ownership” of the money, Brobson argued.