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United States v. Approximately $16

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 30, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff
v.
Approximately $16,500.00 in United States Currency, Defendant

Page 777

For United States of America, Plaintiff: James T. Clancy, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. Attorney's Office, Harrisburg, PA.

For Approximately $16,500.00 in United States Currency, Defendant: Raymond G. Lahoud, Law Offices of Baurkot & Baurkot, Easton, PA.

Page 778

MEMORANDUM

Christopher C. Conner, Chief United States District Judge.

Presently before the court in the above-captioned matter is the motion (Docs. 14, 17) filed by Ernesto Ruiz, Eusebia Ruiz, and Ely Felix Ruiz (collectively, " the Ruizes" ), seeking the return of property and the award of attorneys fees, litigation expenses, and interest, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(g) and 28 U.S.C. § 2465(b)(1). The Ruizes allege that the Drug Enforcement Administration (" DEA" ) seized $20,000 in United States currency from their safe deposit box and that, following an order (Doc. 12) of court directing the return of the seized property, the government failed to relinquish $3500 of the total amount seized. For the reasons that follow, the court will deny the motion in its entirety.

I. Factual Background & Procedural History

The matter sub judice stems from the seizure by the DEA of a disputed amount of United States currency during the course of a criminal drug trafficking investigation. [1] On August 19, 2013, the Honorable Henry S. Perkin, United States Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, authorized a search warrant for the Ruizes' safe deposit box at PNC Bank in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 16-1, Ex. 1 ¶ 1 (DEA Report of Investigation); see Doc. 18-2 (Search Warrant)). Two DEA agents, Special Agent Mark O'Donnell (" Special Agent O'Donnell" ) and Task Force Officer Michael Neff (" Task Force Officer Neff" ), arrived at PNC Bank on August 20, 2013 to execute the warrant. (Doc. 16-1, Ex. 1 ¶ 1 (DEA Report of Investigation)). PNC Bank contacted Ely Felix Ruiz (" Mr. Ruiz" ) and requested that he deliver the key to the Ruizes' safe deposit box to facilitate the execution of the warrant. (Id.) Mr. Ruiz complied, arriving within approximately one hour. (Id. ¶ 2). After reviewing the warrant, Mr. Ruiz stated that the safe deposit box held " less than $20,000" and presented the key to the DEA agents. (Id.) The agents then opened the safe deposit box, in the presence of Mr. Ruiz and the PNC Bank branch manager. (Id. ¶ 3).

Therein, the DEA agents found an undetermined quantity of United States currency and a collection of miscellaneous documents. (Id.) The agents transferred the currency from the safe deposit box into a self-sealing evidence bag, labeled serial number ES000374724. (Id.) Mr. Ruiz signed the sealed evidence bag and received

Page 779

a DEA-12 form, which stated that an " undetermined amount of U.S. currency" had been seized from the safe deposit box. (Id. ¶ 4; see Doc. 18-3 (Form DEA-12: Receipt for Cash or Other Items)).

According to the DEA Report of Investigation prepared by Special Agent O'Donnell, Special Agent O'Donnell and Task Force Officer Neff transported the sealed evidence bag containing the seized currency to the DEA Harrisburg Regional Office. (Doc. 16-1, Ex. 1 ¶ 5 (DEA Report of Investigation)). The agents placed the sealed bag " in an empty cabinet with a closed door located in an unused room" of the Regional Office. (Id.) Two days later, on August 22, 2013, Special Agent O'Donnell and Task Force Officer Neff transported the evidence bag from the Harrisburg Regional Office to the Counterdrug Joint Task Force Unit in Annville, Pennsylvania for the purpose of conducting an ion scan on its contents. (Id. ¶ 7). Special Agent O'Donnell opened the evidence bag, labeled ES000374724, in the presence of Task Force Officer Neff and Sergeant Scott Thornsberry (" Sergeant Thornsberry" ) and removed the currency located therein. (Id.) Sergeant Thornsberry conducted an ion scan and reported that the currency tested negative for the presence of narcotics. (Id.) Special Agent O'Donnell, witnessed by Task Force Officer Neff and Sergeant Thornsberry, returned the currency to evidence bag ES000374724 and re-sealed the bag. (Id.)

From there, Special Agent O'Donnell and Task Force Officer Neff transported the evidence bag to Dunbar Cash Vault Services (" Dunbar" ), located in York, Pennsylvania, so that the seized currency could be counted and deposited. (Id. ¶ 8). At Dunbar, the teller removed the currency from the sealed evidence bag in the presence of Special Agent O'Donnell and Task Force Officer Neff. (Id.) The count performed by the Dunbar teller revealed $16,500 in one hundred dollar bills. (Id.; see Doc. 16-1, Ex. 2 (Receipt from Dunbar Cash Vault Services)). Special Agent O'Donnell then deposited $16,500 with the U.S. Marshals Service. (Doc. 16-1, Ex. 1 ¶ 8 (DEA Report of Investigation); see Doc. 16-1, Ex. 3 (U.S. Marshals Service Deposit Receipt)).

In September 2013, the DEA initiated an administrative forfeiture proceeding against the currency. (Doc. 17 ¶ 17; Doc. 18-4). The DEA served written notice of the seizure and the administrative forfeiture proceeding on Mr. Ruiz on September 28, 2013. (Doc. 17 ¶ 17; Doc. 18-4). The DEA terminated that proceeding upon receipt of the Ruizes' timely filed claims, which contested the forfeiture and asserted that $20,000 in ...


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