(Reprinted from Point of View with the permission of the Alameda County Attorney’s Office.)
Seizure of nearly half a million dollars stands without any narcotics found. Issue: Did officers demonstrate a sufficient connection between drug trafficking and cash so as to justify the seizure of the money?
During a combined federal and local drug investigation in Los Angeles, officers determined that a certain business, Sam’s Travel and Telecommunications, was being used to send “huge amounts” of drug money to Columbia. While watching the business, officers saw a man and a woman inside who appeared to be conducting “some sort of business”. When the man and woman left in a pickup truck officers followed them.
The suspects drove to a home in Palmdale where they loaded a laundry dryer onto the truck and drove off. At this point, they started employing “counter-surveillance” driving techniques which, the court pointed out, “is a common practice used by drug traffickers to expose and elude” officers who might be following them. The court explained that counter-surveillance driving typically includes “driving slowly at less than the flow of traffic, making sudden and unsignaled changes in velocity and direction, as well as ‘running’ red traffic lights. Each of these tactics is designed to make unobserved surveillance very difficult.”
About two weeks later, officers staked out the home in Palmdale and saw a woman go in and out of the house. The officers contacted the woman who said she lived in the house with her boyfriend, Santos. The officers told her they were conducting a narcotics investigation and requested permission to search the house. The woman consented.
In the attic, officers found two trash bags containing over $497,000 in bundled bills of various denominations. They also found a clothes dryer with most of its inner parts removed. They were aware that drug dealers commonly transport drug money out of the country in hollowed-out sections of large appliances. In addition, the officers found several empty, one-gallon bags on which someone had written a dollar figure, such as “$30,000”.
Later, officers talked to Santos who said the money belonged to his friend, Girardo who had paid him $1,000 to “take care of it”. He said Girardo previously brought him $200,000 and paid him $1,000 to “watch it for a few days.” The money was then exposed to a police dog who had been trained to detect the residue of illicit drugs on money. The dog, who had never alerted to “clean” money, alerted to the money found in Santos’ attic.
The DA filed a civil complaint seeking forfeiture of the money on grounds it constituted the proceeds of drug trafficking. Following a court trial, the money was ordered forfeited.
Girardo contended the money was not subject to forfeiture because there was an insufficient connection or “nexus” between the money and drug trafficking. Among other things, he pointed out there were no drugs or paraphernalia in the house.
The court explained that to obtain a forfeiture order, the prosecution “need not offer evidence of the discovery of significant quantities of narcotics transaction.” Nor must the prosecution connect the drugs to a particular drug transaction. (19) Instead, the link may be based on circumstantial evidence. (20) In other words, the prosecution must “offer some evidentiary basis for inferring a link between the seized cash and past or future narcotics activity. (21) The court noted that the following circumstances are relevant in establishing a connection between money and drug trafficking:
Quantity of money: A large amount of money found in one location is “strong circumstantial evidence” that the money is connected to drugs.
Manner of packaging or storage: The manner in which the money is stored may help furnish the necessary connection; examples, $30,000 in $100 bills stapled together and hidden in the spare tire of an abandoned car, $30,000 in a man’s sock in a dresser.
Money found in drug location: It is relevant that the money was found in a home, business or other place that has been connected to drug trafficking.
Alert by drug-detecting dog: Although it may be true that detectable quantities of illegal drugs may be found on much of the money that is circulating in the U.S., a canine alert is generally considered “probative evidence the currency is related to narcotics trafficking”, and is, therefore, a factor that may be considered along with any other relevant evidence.
The court then applied these circumstances to the facts of the case and concluded the forfeiture of the money was justified. Said the court:
[O]fficers found nearly a half a million dollars stashed in a house connected to a major drug trafficking and money laundering organization. It was bundled in packages, stuffed into two large garbage bags and hidden in the attic of a residence whose occupant [Girardo] paid to conceal this cash and a prior stash of cash. The house also contained equipment drug traffickers typically used to transport and smuggle their proceeds out of the country. Altogether, the circumstantial evidence in this case is more than sufficient even without the “dog alert” evidence to support the judgement of the trial court.
(19) See People v. Four Million, Two Hundred Fifty-Five Thousand (11th Cir.1985) 762 F.2d 895, 904.
(20) Citing U.S. v. Brook (D.C. Cir.1984) 747 F.2d 761, 762-3. Note: The court pointed out that the prosecution must establish a nexus by a preponderance.
(21) Quoting from People v. $47,050 (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 1319, 1325-6.