Money seizure puts focus on state law

Published 5:00 am Thursday, June 10, 2004

The seizure of $27,000 by the Lincoln County Sheriff’sDepartment during a traffic stop in March has raised questionsabout the scope of the state’s asset forfeiture laws.

The money, which has since been returned to the owners, wasseized during a routine stop on Interstate 55 when a deputy foundit in a plastic bag in the vehicle’s trunk. A thorough search ofthe vehicle after the discovery failed to find any controlledsubstances or illegal contraband, but deputies took the money underthe state’s money-laundering statute.

The money-laundering statute passed by the Mississippilegislature in 1998 allows law enforcement officers to seize cash– even without the presence of illegal substances — if theysuspect the money was generated through unlawful activity. It doesnot specify how long a law enforcement agency can hold thefunds.

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The vehicle was occupied by Palestinian immigrants Atiya Salehand Shareer Quattom and Jordanian immigrant Majed Atta, all of NewOrleans, who claimed the money originated from a businesstransaction. Their story was recently documented in a page onearticle and an editorial in the New Orleans newspaper, TheTimes-Picayune.

Saleh and Quattom had sold a grocery store in New Orleans toAtta earlier in the day, and the $27,000 was part of the downpayment, Saleh said. They did not deposit the money in the bankbecause it would be used the next day as part of a down payment ona gasoline station.

Lincoln County Sheriff Wiley Calcote questioned thataccount.

“The only document they had was that they had sold one store andwere buying another store, but there was nothing tying the money tothat transaction, and they gave conflicting information about theamount and origin of the money,” Calcote said.

The three men were traveling to Jackson to help Atta move hisbelongings to New Orleans when they were stopped by Lincoln CountyDeputy David Johnson for weaving in the road. They gave permissionfor the vechile to be searched. The money was found, but nothingelse

The men said they were handcuffed and forced to stand on theside of the road for several hours before being taken to the countyjail, where they were strip-searched. They were released afterseveral hours of questioning, but the sheriff’s office refused torelease the money, pending further investigation.

A careless driving citation was the only charge levied againstany of the men.

Calcote said the investigation was turned over to the InternalRevenue Service early in the case, because they had more resourcesthey could devote to it.

Saleh has a theory of his own.

“My own belief is that they were trying to convince the IRS thatit was a good seizure, and they could keep the money, but theycouldn’t get enough evidence that it was not legitimate,” Salehsaid.

Calcote and Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department Narcotics Capt.Dustin Bairfield, one of the investigating officers, said the moneywould not have stayed in Lincoln County regardless of theinvestigation’s outcome.

“Under the money laundering statute, the money goes to the statetreasurer,” Bairfield said. “We would not have received a dime ofit under state law.”

Robert Byrd, an assistant district attorney for the 14thDistrict, agreed.

“That’s a relatively new law, and there’s only been one casethat has gone to the Supreme Court,” he said. “There’s been verylittle case law to further define that law.”

Only money seized in conjunction with drugs is returned to lawenforcement agencies, Byrd said.

Eighty percent of the money seized in drug cases under the stateasset forfeiture laws is returned to the agency that made thearrest, with 20 percent going to the district attorney’s office. Inother cases, Byrd said, such as when more than one agency isinvolved in the seizure, the money is distributed differently.

Calcote said his office acted in accordance with state law.

“As long as it’s still under investigation and (theinvestigation) is moving forward, (the money) can be held,” Calcotesaid. “You can’t just sit on (the case) for a year and not doanything with it, but (the money) can be held as long as it’s beinginvestigated.”

The federal Civil Asset Forfeiture Act of 2000 requires thegovernment to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that theproperty was used to commit or facilitate the commission of a crimeor was involved in the commission of a crime. Law agencies mustshow there was a substantial connection between the property andthe crime.

The law also allows property owners to sue the government forcompensation for damage to their property if they prevail in civilforfeiture actions.

Bairfield said the $27,000 was released as soon as the IRS gaveits approval. The final documentation needed to prove the money’slegitimacy arrived two weeks ago from the men’s attorney and wasforwarded to the IRS.

Bairfield admits he told the men he thought the case would beresolved in about 10 days, but he said he did not realize it wouldtake the IRS a month to even look at the case.

“They were informed that their money would be returned to themif it all checked out and was found to be legitimate money,”Calcote said.

Saleh said he received the full $27,000 by check Tuesdaymorning.

He said Mississippi should take “a hard look” at its assetforfeiture laws.

“I’m not aware of all the legalities, but if what they are doingis legal, it needs to be looked at,” he said.