PCSD ordered to reimburse $77K from illegal seizure

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Putnam County Sheriff’s Department must pay back more than $77,000 to an Arizona man after seizing cash from his vehicle in a February 2018 stop.

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled on the case recently, determining that the money was unlawfully seized from the vehicle of Alvin L. Lewis and turned over to the federal government.

Lewis was stopped on westbound Interstate 70 on Feb. 14, 2018. PCSD Maj. Dwight Simmons initiated the stop, explaining to Lewis that the Arizona temporary plate was hard to read and that Lewis was weaving back and forth.

Lewis explained that he had purchased the vehicle from a friend and had 90 days to fix title issues.

Simmons’ computer was running slowly that day and he invited Lewis to sit in the passenger seat of the police vehicle with him.

In the course of their conversation, Simmons found that Lewis gave inconsistent answers to some questions he asked. At one point, Lewis referred to his wife, while at another he called her his girlfriend.

He also initially told the deputy that he had purchased the vehicle from someone named Sergio, but later clarified that he bought it from a friend who had bought it from Sergio. Lewis said he did not know any further identifying information on Sergio.

About 20 minutes into the stop, Simmons told Lewis he was going to give him a warning regarding the basis of the traffic stop.

After issuing the warning, Simmons asked if Lewis had ever been in trouble for narcotics-related activities. Lewis said there “might have” been something in Detroit.

The deputy then asked if there were any narcotics, guns or large sums of money in the vehicle and Lewis said there were not. When Simmons clarified, “No narcotics?” Lewis paused before answering, “No.”

Simmons noted, “you had to think about that” and then asked if Lewis would consent to a search of the vehicle. Lewis refused.

The deputy then conducted a K9 sweep of the vehicle, with the K9 officer alerting twice on the passenger side of the vehicle. After backup arrived, Simmons conducted a warrantless search of the vehicle and located a hidden compartment behind the rear seat, finding $77,060 in cash and two digital scales, but no illegal narcotics.

Lewis denied knowledge of the existence of the compartment and said multiple times that the money was his.

Simmons seized the money for the purpose of transferring it to the federal government.

At issue in the case is what came next. Although no link was established between the cash and any illegal activity, the State filed a motion for a turnover order to transfer the seized funds to the federal government.

What’s interesting is that not only did Lewis and his attorney object to this motion, but Putnam County Deputy Prosecutor Justin Long also agreed that the money did not meet the standard for forfeiture.

However, Circuit Court Judge Matthew Headley granted the turnover order.

One of the main arguments in the appeal was whether or not Lewis had any claim to the money.

The State, represented by the Indiana Attorney General’s office, argued that he did not, based on his repeated claims that the money was not his.

However, the Court of Appeals ruled that this argument was not permissible, as it was not raised until the appeal.

Furthermore, the three-judge panel ruled that the state essentially gave Lewis a claim to the money by naming him in the original court case.

“(The State) named Lewis as the one and only party in interest in the turnover proceedings,” Presiding Judge John Baker wrote. “From the outset, therefore, the State conceded the issue of standing.”

The court also ruled that, regardless of the standing of Lewis, PCSD did not follow proper statutes in turning the money over to federal authorities.

“To be turned over to the federal government, the State must show that the property was properly seized pursuant to ... the forfeiture statute,” Baker wrote.

In a nutshell, this statute says that forfeiture can only happen if the money can be linked to criminal activity, which did not happen in this case.

“In this case, there is no evidence whatsoever that a crime occurred,” Baker wrote. “No drugs were found. The State did not bother to test the scales or the cash for residue. No drug paraphernalia was found.”

Instead, Baker noted, the State argued there “must have been a crime committed in the context of the possession of this much cash. We think this argument goes several steps too far.”

The judge went on to note his specific concern with Simmons’ actions.

“We note our concern that Deputy Simmons has apparently already, and prematurely, turned the currency over to federal law enforcement,” Baker wrote. “It appears, as a result, that the currency is in federal, rather than state, possession at this time.

“We strongly encourage law enforcement officers to abide by state law with respect to forfeiture and turnover proceedings.”

Ruling that the trial court erred in granting the State’s motion, the Court of Appeals ordered that PCSD immediately pay the $77,060 to Lewis, even though the money is now in federal hands.

“We do not believe that it is fair to require Lewis to undertake the process of retrieving his money from the federal government,” Baker wrote. “Therefore, we reverse and remand with instructions that the State reimburse Lewis instanter (at once); the State may then choose to try and recoup that money from the federal government.”

While the case was also challenged based on the constitutionality of the search, judges Baker, Edward Najam Jr. and Mark Bailey chose not to consider this part of the arguments.

On Tuesday evening, the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department issued its own statement on the case.

“We are aware of the decision of the Court of Appeals and are in the process of reviewing the ruling. We plan on making a decision on whether to file an appeal in the very near future,” a PCSD official said.

“We felt confident in our seizure,” the statement continued. “The local circuit court agreed with our position and was ultimately overruled by the Court of Appeals.”

It is unclear how long the sheriff’s department has to appeal the ruling.

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  • Great job, Sheriff Stockton! Major Simmons might need to go through the the Academy again.

    -- Posted by Queen53 on Wed, May 29, 2019, at 5:20 PM
  • Queen53 can we cut the snide remarks before they ever begin. Thank you

    -- Posted by Nit on Wed, May 29, 2019, at 7:54 PM
  • This guy WAS probably involved in something illegal based on the hidden compartment, his inconsistent statements, and having 70k in cash (no one carries that around). But because our sheriff and judge are incompetent we’re now forced to give 70k to back to someone who’s most likely up to no good (maybe we’ll get reimbursed from the feds in 5 years). If I made this kind of f-up in my job I’d be out the door that day. Hopefully the citizens will remember this when the judge and sherif are up for election again

    -- Posted by hometownboy on Wed, May 29, 2019, at 8:23 PM
  • Maybe Stockton can sell his buddies boat he bought for the (sheriff's dept.) to play with, to recoup that money. Hope they learn to quit slamming your outboard motor with it like they did mine!

    -- Posted by 1armyvet on Wed, May 29, 2019, at 11:24 PM
  • *

    Where is my friend, ERJVH? I would like to take just a moment to gloat. :)

    When even the prosecutors office says that it is a bad seizure, its a bad seizure. (The local prosecutors office and the local police department - in this case the PCSD - routinely get a kickback from these types of seizures. For "drug interdiction" and related work, of course.)

    And while y'all are piling on the sheriff (as you rightly should), let's remember that it was the judge, Matt Headley, that okay'ed the illegal seizure after the fact. (Thereby giving cover to the sheriff's office for their misdeed.)

    Judges can be voted out just as easily as sheriffs.

    -- Posted by dreadpirateroberts on Mon, Jun 3, 2019, at 2:39 PM
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