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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. $17

May 1, 2012

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA
v.
$17,182.00 US CURRENCY CURTIS KING
v.
MARK A. CONRAD PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA APPEAL OF: CURTIS KING



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Patricia A. McCULLOUGH, Judge

Argued: March 12, 2012

BEFORE: HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge

OPINION BY JUDGE McCULLOUGH

Curtis King (King) appeals from the July 15, 2011, order of the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County (trial court), granting the Commonwealth's petition for forfeiture and denying King's motion for return of property. We reverse.

On April 5, 2010, King, a New York resident, was traveling east on Interstate Route 80 toward New York City when Trooper Mark Conrad stopped him for an alleged motor vehicle code violation. During the traffic stop, Trooper Conrad observed that King had only a single key in the ignition and that the car was registered to someone other than King. Trooper Conrad ran a criminal history on King and found that King had criminal arrests for distribution of drugs in upstate New York, the most recent of which was in 2006. Trooper Conrad asked King to consent to a search of the vehicle, but King refused. Trooper Conrad called a K-9 unit, and when it arrived, the dog "alerted" at the passenger door of the vehicle. Trooper Conrad once again asked King if he could search the vehicle; when King refused, Trooper Conrad impounded the vehicle, handcuffed King, and took him to the police barracks. Although a search of the vehicle revealed no drugs, $17,182, rubber-banded in $1,000 increments, was found in the center console of the car. The cash was seized. King was released, and no traffic citation or criminal charges were filed.

The trial court consolidated the Commonwealth's petition for forfeiture of the cash with King's petition for return of property and held a hearing on May 20, 2011. At the hearing, the Commonwealth presented the testimony of Trooper Conrad; Trooper Jerry Powell, the canine handler who reported to the scene; Trooper Tom Appleman; and Sergeant Frank Jost of the National Guard. The latter two of these witnesses, Trooper Appleman and Sergeant Jost, testified about an ion scan performed on the seized cash.

Trooper Conrad testified that the stretch of road on which King was traveling was a "drug corridor" and that having a single key in the ignition of a borrowed car was a common practice of drug dealers. (N.T. at 9-10.) According to Trooper Conrad, the manner in which the money was bundled was consistent with drug trafficking because it is "easy to count and distribute the money" that way. (N.T. at 14.) Trooper Conrad also stated that King was evasive when asked whether there was money in the car. Trooper Conrad also testified extensively about his conversations with King during the traffic stop and at the police barracks, but he acknowledged that he did not give King his Miranda warnings at any time.

King testified that he was traveling to New York City to take some clothing to his younger brothers. He testified that he was a senior in college, he lived with his uncle, he was not employed, and he survived on help from his parents, student loans, and financial aid. According to King, $6,000 of the money was his and the rest was a loan from Albert Newman, a New York car dealer, for the purpose of buying a car in New Jersey and then selling the car at a profit in New York. King acknowledged that he had one prior conviction in New York for possession of cocaine.

The trial court excluded all information Trooper Conrad elicited from King at the police barracks because King had not been advised of his Miranda rights. The trial court also found that the ion scan test results were inadmissible because the wrong casual contact level had been used.*fn1

Despite having excluded much of the evidence adduced at the hearing, the trial court concluded that the following evidence was sufficient to establish a nexus between the money and a violation of the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (Controlled Substance Act):*fn2 (1) there was only a single key in the ignition; (2) the vehicle was not registered to King; (3) King had a criminal history; (4) King was traveling in a "drug corridor"; and (5) King "admitted that he was a [well-known] drug dealer in Binghamton." (Trial court op. at 9.) This latter "evidence," that King admitted to being a drug dealer, was drawn from Trooper Conrad's testimony about his conversations with King, which the trial court purportedly excluded. Having concluded that the evidence established the required nexus, the trial court granted the Commonwealth's forfeiture petition and denied King's petition for return of property.

On appeal to this Court,*fn3 King argues that the Commonwealth failed to meet its burden to establish a nexus between the seized currency and criminal activity. We agree.

Discussion

In relevant part, section 6801 of the Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act (Forfeiture Act) provides as follows:

(a) Forfeitures generally.--The following shall be subject to forfeiture to the Commonwealth and no ...


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