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COA orders state to reimburse $77K from illegal seizure

May 23, 2019

The state must pay back more than $77,000 to a man after seizing cash from his vehicle, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled, finding the money was unlawfully seized and turned over to the federal government.

In Alvin L. Lewis v. Putnam County Sheriff’s Department, 18A-MI-1869, Alvin Lewis’ vehicle was stopped on Interstate 70 in Putnam County after local Deputy Dwight Simmons observed the vehicle weaving back and forth with a temporary Arizona license plate that was hard to read. Lewis told Simmons he had purchased the vehicle from a friend and had taken steps to fix the title issues with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Simmons invited Lewis to sit in his police vehicle while Simmons checked his license, and the driver agreed. Simmons then began asking Lewis questions about his family, his work and a recent hotel stay, among other personal questions. During the conversation, Lewis gave some inconsistent/evasive answers, such as referring to his partner as both his girlfriend and his wife and changing his story on who he bought the vehicle from.

After about 20 minutes in the squad car, Simmons told Lewis he would let him off with a warning. However, Simmons then asked if Lewis had ever been in trouble for drugs, and the driver indicated he had some legal trouble in Detroit. Simmons then asked Lewis if he had drugs in the car, and Lewis paused before answering negatively. 

Simmons then asked if Lewis would consent to a search of his vehicle, and when the driver refused, the officer conducted a K-9 sweep. The dog alerted on the vehicle, and a subsequent warrantless search of the car revealed $77,060 in cash and two digital scales. Lewis claimed the money wasn’t his, but Simmons seized the cash and the Putnam Circuit Court later granted a motion to turn the money over to the United States government.

But after hearing oral arguments last week, the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the seizure of the cash and ordered the state to reimburse Lewis. Judge John Baker, after rejecting the state’s argument that Lewis lacked standing to challenge the turnover, noted at the outset of the court’s analysis that “there is no evidence whatsoever that a crime occurred.”

“No drugs were found. The State did not bother to test the scales or the cash for residue, so no drug residue was found. No drug paraphernalia was found,” Baker wrote. “…The plain language of the statute requires the State to prove that the money is directly related to some sort of criminal activity. Here, there is a complete dearth of evidence in that regard.

“Under these circumstances, the State has wholly failed to prove that the cash was properly seized pursuant to Indiana Code chapter 34-24-1,” Baker continued. “Therefore, it has failed to show that it is entitled to a turnover order under Indiana Code section 35-33-5-5(j), and the trial court erred by granting the State’s motion.”

Rather than requiring Lewis to personally seek his money from the federal government, the COA ordered the state to reimburse Lewis for the full amount immediately. Then, it may “choose to try to recoup that money from the federal government.”

Finally, in a footnote, the COA expressed concern that “Simmons has apparently already, and prematurely, turned the currency over to federal law enforcement.”

“It appears, as a result, that the currency is in federal, rather than state, possession at this time,” the court wrote. “We strongly encourage law enforcement officers to abide by state law with respect to forfeiture and turnover proceedings.”

 

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