Pennsylvania Court Returns $300,000 to Owner After Unconstitutional Detention

Routine Traffic Stop on I-80

The State Police conducted a traffic stop of a Cadillac SUV on I-80 in Union County for Following Too Closely and failing to use a turn signal when changing lanes. These are relatively minor violations, but the police often use minor violations on major roadways as an excuse to pull someone over and then look for other violations, like transporting drugs.

In this case, the trooper questioned the driver and was told that the vehicle had been rented in New York and was supposed to be dropped off in Denver in two days.  Oddly, the trooper noticed a bag full of snacks in the vehicle and noted that the snacks indicated that the driver was taking a long trip. The trooper seemed to infer that having snacks was a sign of criminal activity. I would expect that a person traveling from New York to Denver would travel would some snacks in the vehicle.

No Evidence of Drugs or Weapons

The trooper did not notice anything to suspect that the driver possessed drugs or weapons. No odor of marijuana. The trooper verified that the driver had a valid license, and the trooper obtained all the required info to either issue a warning or a citations. Despite the trooper having all the necessary info, the trooper ordered the driver to exit the vehicle and then subjected him to a patdown search for weapons. The trooper then requested the license and vehicular documentation again. The trooper asked the driver if there were any weapons, drugs, or large amounts of currency in the vehicle, and the driver said no. The trooper then asked for consent to search the vehicle, and the driver acquiesced. During the search, the trooper found over $300,000 in cash in a suitcase in the rear cargo area of the vehicle. The trooper did not find any weapons or evidence of drugs, just the cash. The trooper seized the cash. No criminal charges were ever filed against the driver.

Not surprisingly, the driver later wanted his money back, and his lawyer filed a Motion for Return of Property to have the cash returned. The attorney argued that the driver’s consent to search the car was given during an unconstitutional detention, so the consent was coerced and thereby not valid. The attorney conceded that the original traffic stop was legal, but he argued that the trooper unlawfully extended the original traffic stop when he ordered the driver from the vehicle, retained the driver’s documentation, searched the driver, and then continued to question the driver despite having all the info needed. The attorney argued that the continued detention violated the driver’s 4th Amendment rights to be free of illegal searches and seizures, the man’s consent to search was unlawfully obtained, and therefore the money should be returned to the driver.

Illegal Detention Results in Suppression of Evidence

The county judge in Union County disagreed with the attorney’s argument, held that the ongoing detention was lawful, and thereby allowed the government to keep the $300,000. The driver’s attorney appealed to the Commonwealth Court in Pennsylvania. This Court was much more receptive to the lawyer’s argument that the driver’s constitutional rights were violated. The Court noted that the trooper had obtained sufficient information from the driver to either issue a warning or a citation BEFORE the trooper ordered the driver to exit the vehicle, subjected him to a patdown search, and continued with questioning. The Court stated that the continued detention constituted a new investigative detention that must be supported by reasonable suspicion apart from the reason for the initial traffic stop. The Court then reviewed the facts and stated that the trooper did not have reasonable suspicion to continue the detention. The trooper did not notice any indicators that the driver possessed drugs or weapons. The driver did not have a criminal record. By ruling that the trooper did not have reasonable suspicion to justify the second detention, the detention violated the driver’s constitutional rights, so the Court suppressed all evidence found during the search, which included the money. The Court ruled that the $300,000 was illegally seized from the driver and thereby must be returned to him.

This was a long fight for the driver. It sounds ridiculous that the government can seize a person’s money without any suspicion of criminal activity, but this happens with relative frequency on highways in Pennsylvania. When the government gets money, they do not like to return it. A person must often pay an attorney to fight back. This driver made a great decision and hired a top notch State College criminal defense attorney to fight back and ultimately win.