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Proximity may not justify seizure of alleged drug money

Having an inadequate criminal defense has long-term consequences. Forfeiture of money allegedly involved in drug crimes is one possible consequence. However, the state Supreme Court recently ruled that prosecutors cannot simply prove that cash and illegal drugs were in the same place to justify the seizure of money.

In that case, Pennsylvania State Police stopped a New Jersey resident in August 2009 because of tailgating while driving with three passengers. After smelling marijuana, the Trooper received consent to search the car and found ecstasy pills and a small amount of marijuana. Additionally, he confiscated $34,440 hidden behind a side door.

The driver admitted that the drugs belonged to him. However, the car's occupants claimed that they did not know that cash was in the vehicle. Although he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of marijuana, the driver was not charged with any offense involving drug distribution or any other charge related to the money.

Yet, prosecutors sought forfeiture of the cash. Another individual, who claimed that he was not in the stopped vehicle but was the driver's friend, said that he was the money's owner and that it was awarded to him in a personal injury lawsuit.

He submitted two check stubs for $37,800 as evidence and argued that he took the money out as cash to impress his friends. He claimed that the money was hidden in the car because he did not want to deposit it in a bank.

A trial court judge granted forfeiture after finding that the proximity of the drugs and cash established its relationship to illegal drug activity. He ruled that the money's owner did not sufficiently establish an innocent owner defense to refute the law's presumption that money found with the drugs resulted from a drug crime.

The state Supreme Court ruled that the money's owner did not have to prove lawful ownership to overcome the forfeiture law's presumption that cash found near drugs was part of a crime. Judges can independently conclude whether the money or property was connected to a drug crime and look to other facts besides legal proof of ownership.

Pennsylvania's forfeiture laws were amended last year and provide more stringent standards. However, cash owners still must challenge the legal presumption that money and drugs were related if they were found in the same place. An attorney can help challenge this presumption and provide a defense against other charges.

Source: The Allentown Morning Call, "Pa. Supreme Court rules drugs nearby not enough for prosecutors to seize money," by Peter Hall, Dec. 19, 2017

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