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UNITED STATES v. 1988 BMW 750IL

April 17, 1989

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
1988 BMW 750IL, VEHICLE ID NO. WBAGC8318J2765453 WITH ACCESSORIES AND EQUIPMENT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DUBOIS

 JAN E. DUBOIS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

 The plaintiff, United States of America (hereinafter the "Government") brought this action in rem seeking forfeiture of defendant car, a 1988 BMW model 750IL, pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 782 and 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(4). The Government bases the forfeiture action on the allegation that the defendant car was used to transport or facilitate the transportation, sale, receipt, possession or concealment of controlled substances. Claimant, Rhonda Hinton, filed a claim to the defendant car as the record owner.

 This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1345 and 1355.

 A non-jury trial was held before the Court on April 10, 1989. After considering the testimony of the witnesses, the exhibit submitted by the Government at trial, and the legal arguments of counsel, the Court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

 I. FINDINGS OF FACT:

 On the evening of February 17, 1988, Philadelphia Police Sergeant Edward Hargadon observed the defendant car illegally parked at the Northwest corner of Fayette Street and Roumford Road in Philadelphia. The defendant car is a 1988 BMW model 750IL valued at approximately $ 75,000. He observed one individual in the defendant car. Sergeant Hargadon did not immediately approach the vehicle, but rather waited and continued his observation. He then saw a man carrying a bag enter the passenger side of the car. The car then pulled away, and Sergeant Hargadon followed. After Sergeant Hargadon observed the car go through a stop sign without stopping and making a U-turn, Sergeant Hargadon stopped the car at the Northeast corner of Fayette Street and Roumford Road.

 At the request of the Sergeant, the driver identified himself as Benjamin Goff. Goff could not produce the car's registration, and he gave conflicting stories to the Sergeant regarding its ownership. A check with the Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles revealed that Goff's driver's license was under suspension, but the check revealed no owner for the car. The passenger identified himself as Leonard Patterson; he produced no identification and stated that he did not have a valid driver's license. Claimant Rhonda Hinton was not in the car at the time of the stop by the Sergeant.

 Sergeant Hargadon opened the door on the driver's side to obtain the vehicle identification number (VIN). While he was doing this, he noticed a sneaker bag on the floor of the backseat standing upright and filled with money. After Goff and Patterson got out of the car, Sergeant Hargadon reached into the car, pulled out the bag, and saw that it contained a large amount of currency in small bills.

 Sergeant Hargadon questioned the occupants of the car regarding the bag. Patterson stated that he worked for Goff at a business called "A-Tech." Goff stated that A-Tech was an auto detailer business and that the money in the bag was from that business. Sergeant Hargadon also observed that Patterson wore a ring with the initials "JBM" on it. The Sergeant understood those initials to stand for "Junior Black Mafia," an organization that he believed was connected to drug related activities. In addition, Sergeant Hargadon noted that the money in the bag was wrapped into bundles, another clue causing the Sergeant to believe that the money was drug related.

 Sergeant Hargadon decided to take custody of the car. His decision was based on two factors: First, neither of the occupants had a valid driver's license and therefore neither was legally able to drive the car away; and second, the Sergeant believed that leaving the car parked at or near that street corner posed an unreasonable risk of vandalism or theft. The car was then taken to the police station for safekeeping and for further investigation into its ownership.

 After the car arrived at the police station, the contents of the vehicle were inventoried. Although there is no evidence that there are written regulations for the inventory procedure, such an inventory is standard. The inventory revealed, inter alia, a registration in the name of the Claimant and the bag of money. The bag was emptied, and the money was counted. The bag contained $ 2,741 in one dollar bills, $ 760 in five dollar bills, $ 1,340 in ten dollar bills, $ 2,240 in twenty dollar bills, and $ 100 in fifty dollar bills for a total of $ 7,181.

 A prior criminal history check revealed that Goff and Patterson had prior arrests for drug related offenses. This history of criminal activity, along with the evidence acquired from the inventory of the car and from the information given to Sergeant Hargadon by Goff and Patterson, caused the police to believe that the money was drug related. Therefore, a drug sniffing dog was brought in to see if the dog could detect any drugs. The money was placed back into the sneaker bag and hidden in a drawer in a room. After approximately five minutes, the dog "hit" on the money - the dog found the money and reacted-suggesting that the money was tainted with drugs.

 The day after the car was taken into custody, and after the dog sniff, the bag of money was searched again. In this second search, a small amount of cocaine was found. On the basis of all this evidence, the ...


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