What were state police supposed to think when they stopped a speeding car on Interstate 80 in Jackson Township in March?
Neither the driver nor passenger had a driver’s license, both had drug arrest records, the car was rented to the person they had been going to visit and there was $15,000 in cash bundled in a baggie under the back seat, according to court papers.
To top it all off, the baggie the money was in smelled like marijuana, a police dog smelled something on the money itself and an ion scan found cocaine residue on some of the dollar bills, court papers say.
But nothing illegal was found on driver Norman Caldwell, 34, or passenger Marcus Shannon, 39, both of Onondaga County, N.Y., so neither was charged with anything. Nor was Dalayna Williams, 35, also of Onondaga County, to whom the car was rented.
Employed in a well-paying job, Williams said the $15,000 was hers, money she had been saving up and not tied to anything illegal.
All three gave convoluted, inconsistent explanations as to why Williams hadn’t deposited the money into a bank account and why Caldwell and Shannon had been driving a car rented to someone else.
“In the end, none of that really mattered anyway,” said Williams’ attorney, Michael Ventrella of Tannersville.
Police seized the money under the Controlled Substance (Drug) Forfeiture Act on grounds that the cocaine residue on the dollar bills, along with the bills having been found bundled together in a manner consistent with drug deals, was evidence connecting the money to some type of illegal activity, despite what Williams said.
Monroe County Court Judge Margherita Patti Worthington ruled at the end of an April forfeiture hearing that the money now belonged to the authorities. Worthington deemed the ion scan, which had found cocaine residue on some of the dollar bills, irrelevant since it didn’t prove the money had been circulated in Monroe County to begin with, but because of the other factors, Worthington ruled against Williams.
So, Williams lost her $15,000. Open and shut case, right?
Not according to the higher Commonwealth Court, to which Ventrella appealed on Williams’ behalf.
Commonwealth Court judges Dan Pellegrini, P. Kevin Robson and Patricia McCullough recently reversed Worthington’s decision, ruling that the connection established between the money and illegal activity wasn’t strong enough to subject it to forfeiture, according to court records.
The judges ruled that:
Worthington had correctly deemed the ion scan issue irrelevant.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has deemed police dog scans unreliable because they do not indicate whether all of the cash or just a single dollar bill has been in contact with drugs.
The manner in which the money was bundled together when found doesn’t mean it was bundled that way by drug dealers, even though police said they have found this to be the case in their experience.
Caldwell’s and Shannon’s prior drug arrest records are irrelevant since police found nothing illegal on either man during the traffic stop.
In other words, “Give the lady back her money,” Ventrella said.