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United States v. One 1977 Lincoln Mark V. Coupe Linda Whitby

decided as amended march 25 1981.: March 12, 1981.



Before Gibbons and Van Dusen, Circuit Judges, and Ackerman,*fn* District Judge.

Author: Ackerman


This is an appeal from a final judgment granting forfeiture of an automobile to the United States pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881*fn1 and 49 U.S.C. § 782.*fn2 Judgment was entered on June 25, 1980 by the Honorable Donald W. Van Artsdalen of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The appeal challenges the judgment on two grounds: (1) that the District Judge erred in concluding that the evidence adduced by the government at trial established the probable cause required under the statute for forfeiture; (2) that the warrantless seizure of the car was unlawful. For the reasons expressed herein, we affirm the District Court.

The forfeited vehicle is a white 1977 Lincoln Mark V. Coupe registered in the name of Linda Whitby. The events leading up to the seizure and subsequent forfeiture began in July 1979 when Robin Coy Blue, an undercover informant for the Easton, Pennsylvania Police Department, arranged to purchase heroin from Robert Johnson on July 10, 1979.

On the appointed day, Easton Police Officers Serfass and Beers drove Blue to the Hotel Easton to meet with Johnson and make the purchase. Blue telephoned room 705 from the hotel lobby. A female voice, later identified as Ms. Whitby's, answered the phone and told Blue that Johnson was out.

Blue then left the hotel and walked down a nearby alley. In the alley he saw Johnson and a man named Wilcox bending under the open hood of a white Lincoln Continental Mark V. Coupe. Johnson stepped approximately 4 feet from the car, reached into his left pocket and brought out two packets, one tinfoil and one cellophane. He exchanged these packets, the contents of which were later determined to be heroin, with Blue for $160.00. This sequence of events was observed by Detective Beers who radioed to Detective Serfass that the purchase was completed.

Serfass then walked to the rear of the hotel where he could observe the car and Johnson from the window. After about two minutes Ms. Whitby joined Johnson and spoke to him briefly. Johnson then reached into his left pocket, removed several tinfoil packets and placed them in the trunk of the Lincoln. The tinfoil packets resembled the one just sold to Mr. Blue which contained heroin.*fn3

Two months later, on September 6, 1979, the Easton Police Department arrested about 25 people involved in narcotics transactions, including Mr. Johnson. At the time of his arrest, Johnson turned over the keys to the Lincoln and told the police where it was parked. The car was seized without a warrant the same day from the Williams Car Care Center.

On December 6, 1979, the United States filed its complaint in forfeiture. After a trial without a jury, the district judge ordered forfeiture of the automobile.

Under 21 U.S.C. § 881(a), a vehicle is subject to forfeiture if it is used or intended for use "to transport, or in any manner to facilitate the transportation, sale, receipt, possession, or concealment" of controlled substances. The burden of proof in a forfeiture proceeding is on the claimant once the government has shown probable cause that the vehicle has been used in contravention of the statute. 19 U.S.C. § 1615.*fn4 The district court concluded that the government had shown more than probable cause. Since probable cause is an "ultimate fact" to be reasonably derived from the basic facts, this court is not bound by the "clearly erroneous" standard of review of Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a). We can make an independent determination by examining the basic facts found by the district court. United States v. One 1950 Buick Sedan, 231 F.2d 219, 223 (3d Cir. 1956). On the basis of this independent examination we reach the same conclusion as the district judge, namely that the government demonstrated probable cause.

The appellant argues that there is no evidence that the car was used to transport or conceal a controlled substance. The packets containing heroin were removed from Johnson's pocket when he was standing 4 feet from the car. Additionally, the appellant argues that there is no evidence that the packets which Johnson later placed in the trunk of the car contained heroin. The appellant mistakes the nature of probable cause. The United States Supreme Court in Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 69 S. Ct. 1302, 93 L. Ed. 1879 (1949) characterized probable cause in the following manner:

In dealing with probable cause, however, as the very name implies, we deal with probabilities. These are not technical; they are the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act.

Id. at 175, 69 S. Ct. at 1310. Since the forfeiture statute only requires that the government show probable cause to prevail, the government did not have to prove that the foil packets placed in the trunk of the Lincoln actually contained heroin. It is enough that the packets resembled those which contained heroin and that they were removed from the same left pocket a short time after the packets of heroin were removed. Additionally, even if the packets placed in the trunk of the car did not contain heroin, there was sufficient evidence to support a finding of probable cause that the car was used to "facilitate" the sale of a controlled substance. This court in One 1950 Buick Sedan, supra, considered the statutory meaning of "facilitate."*fn5 We stated that the test was "whether there was a reasonable ground for belief that the use of the automobile made the sale less difficult and allowed it to remain more or less free from obstruction or hinderance." One 1950 Buick Sedan, supra at 222. The facts in this case satisfy the test. The presence of the automobile with its hood up provided a convenient cover whereas two men alone in an alley might have appeared suspicious. Under these ...

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