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COA considers case of $77K seized during a traffic stop

May 16, 2019

The Indiana Court of Appeals grappled with a case Tuesday dealing with a cash seizure and turnover after a traffic stop, getting stuck on whether the state’s arguments of standing were presented on appeal for the first time. 

While conducting a traffic stop, a police officer searched Alvin Lewis’ car for narcotics and found a hidden compartment behind the rear seat. It contained $77,060 in cash and two functioning digital scales.

Lewis repeatedly said that the contents of the compartment were not his. He told the officer that he had purchased the vehicle from a friend, who had gotten it from someone else. He had no bill of sale for the vehicle, but he did have the paperwork. When asked if he had narcotics in the car, Lewis said no, but hesitated before answering.

Federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents took possession of the money, and in March 2018, the state filed a motion for a turnover order to transfer the cash to the federal government.

Lewis filed an objection to the turnover order and a demand for return of the money, but a trial court granted the state’s motion instead and issued the turnover order.

On appeal, Lewis argued that the search of his vehicle was unlawful and alternatively, that the seizure and request to turn the cash over to the federal government were unlawful in Alvin L. Lewis v. Putnam County Sheriff's Department, 18A-MI-1869.  

But state attorney Justin Roebel presented to the appellate panel consisting of Judges John G. Baker, Margret G. Robb and Edward W. Najam Jr. that Lewis had no standing to challenge the seizure and turnover of the cash because he explicitly disclaimed any ownership or possessory interest upon its discovery.

If he had no possessory or ownership interest in the money, the state argued, then Lewis’ rights weren’t violated even if the state did illegally seize the money and improperly turn it over to the federal government.

The state further contended that the officer had a reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing to prolong the stop to conduct a dog sniff. Roebel maintained that the massive amount of cash in the compartment was suspicious, and that Lewis’ strange and unmatching answers gave rise to a reasonable suspicion.

“But why does the federal government get to keep it?” Baker asked.

There was cause to believe that the money was a part of a crime, Roebel said, drawing protest from the bench.

“Why is having money when there’s no evidence of a dog sniff of any kind of drugs or drug paraphernalia in the car, probable cause?” Robb asked.

“This amount of money alone was suspicious,” Roebel replied, drawing a retort from Robb. “Are people not allowed to have cash?” Robb also noted both parties stipulated the scales were not drug paraphernalia.  

Attorney David M. Seiter, representing Lewis, said that the state’s arguments on Lewis’ standing to claim the cash were presented for the first time on appeal and were therefore waived. If not considered waived, however, Sieter asserted that the officer’s hunches did not rise to the level of reasonable suspicion and that Lewis was recognized by the state as the sole interested party in the cash.

To defend that point, Seiter looked to Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 1616 (2015). He contended the trial court erred in not recognizing the Supreme Court’s holding in that case. Whether the traffic stop was extended by five minutes or five seconds, Sieter said, it was a violation of Lewis’ right to not have his traffic stop lengthened beyond the time needed to complete the mission of the stop.

He further rejected the state’s argument that Lewis explicitly disclaimed any ownership of the seized cash and noted that even if the issues weren’t waived, the officer’s suspicion of Lewis did not equate to having reasonable suspicion.

“While officer Simmons may have been suspicious of Mr. Lewis’s answers, he had no knowledge as to their veracity,” Seiter stated in an appellant reply brief. “Therefore, his suspicion of Mr. Lewis was based on his hunches not ‘facts known to the officer at the time.’”

There was no evidence of a crime in the case at all, Sieter said, because no drugs or contraband were found in the car, and because the two scales were never tested for drug residue.

Sieter also asserted that Lewis was the only named party because he was the only one with standing over the property, and that the state had conceded that point by not raising the issue of standing at trial, either in its argument or pleading.

Since Lewis was the last person in possession of the cash, the money should still be returned to him, even if it’s not his, Sieter said. “I think you have to take his denial with a grain of salt.”

When asked if the state raised standing at the trial court level, Robel eventually answered “no.”

The full oral argument can be viewed here.

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