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COA reverses forfeiture against drug offender

May 19, 2017

The state must return funds seized from a man convicted of possession of marijuana after the Indiana Court of Appeals found no proof linking the cash to any drug crimes.

Hancock County Sheriff’s Deputy Nicholas Ernstes was patrolling traffic on I-70 in Henry County when he saw a vehicle following too closely to the car in front of it. Ernstes received a “wanted/stolen hit on the license plate,” initiated a traffic stop and smelled the odor of marijuana as he approached the vehicle.

When Edgar Gonzalez, one of four occupants in the vehicle, opened the glove box to retrieve the rental agreement, Ernstes saw a marijuana dispensary container and marijuana residue throughout the vehicle. After back-up officers arrived, police pried open the center console and found what was believed to be heroin. Officers then discovered one of the passengers had cocaine in her purse and another had hid cocaine in her body.

The three other occupants pleaded guilty to felonies related to possession of a narcotic, while Gonzalez pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana as a Class B misdemeanor. The state filed a complaint for forfeiture, alleging $810 had been seized from Gonzalez and further alleging “said currency had been furnished or was intended to be furnished in exchange for a violation of a criminal statute … as provided in I.C. 34-24-1.”

The Henry Circuit Court entered judgment for forfeiture, so Gonzalez appealed in Edgar Ariel Gonzalez v. State of Indiana and Pace Team, 33A04-1612-MI-2807. In a Friday opinion, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the forfeiture, finding it was outside “the letter and spirit of the law,” a standard found in Hughley v. State, 15 N.E.3d 1000, 1005 (Ind. 2014).

Specifically, Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote, “the State did not produce any evidence that the cash found in Gonzalez’s pants pocket was in any way connected to his commission of that crime. Instead, the State focused upon the acts giving rise to the convictions of other persons, apparently under the theory that ‘the underlying offense’ connected to the currency was a conspiracy to deal narcotics.”

“There is no evidence, physical or testimonial, that Gonzalez ever procured, touched, or used the contraband found in the vehicle,” Bailey wrote Friday. “In short, there is a lack of evidence that Gonzalez was a co-conspirator with the other vehicle occupants or that his money facilitated their offenses.

“Without the establishment of a nexus between Gonzalez’s currency and an underlying offense, the civil forfeiture order is outside the ‘letter and spirit of the law,’’ Bailey continued. “Lacking the requisite proof, the forfeiture order must be reversed.”

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