The Arkansas Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld the civil forfeiture of almost $20,000 taken from a man during a traffic stop, even though he was never charged with a crime and prosecutors had previously attempted to dismiss the case.
Back in July 2013, Guillermo Espinoza was travelling with his girlfriend to Texas, when they were pulled over by the Arkansas State Police. During the stop, a drug dog alerted to a computer bag. Inside, police found $19,894 in cash, which they promptly seized. No contraband was found during the stop.
Although prosecutors in Hot Spring County never charged Espinoza with a crime, they filed a complaint to forfeit his cash in civil court. Espinoza challenged the forfeiture, arguing that “the stop, search and seizure by law enforcement officers was unreasonable, unlawful and unconstitutional” and violated the Fourth Amendment. He also submitted paychecks and tax filings to show that his seized cash was “lawful earnings,” and not drug money. “The state should not be permitted to profit from its own wrongdoing,” he added.
In May 2014, prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the case, writing that the State of Arkansas “has decided not to pursue the forfeiture of the currency.” Unusually, the trial court rejected that motion. After scheduling a hearing, the trial court ordered Espinoza to forfeit his cash in September 2014.
One month later, Espinoza filed a motion for reconsideration, contending that the court “abused its discretion in denying the motion for order of dismissal.” He also claimed the court “clearly erred in granting forfeiture” because prosecutors did not meet the state’s standard of proof (“preponderance of the evidence”) for civil forfeiture proceedings. But in a brief, one sentence order, Circuit Judge Chris Williams denied that motion, ruling it was “without merit.”
Espinoza appealed that decision. On Wednesday, the Arkansas Court of Appeals unanimously ruled against Espinoza on a technicality. Espinoza argued that forfeiture is “quasi-criminal,” and would be subject to the state’s rules of criminal procedure, which grant up to 30 days to file post-trial motions.
But the appellate court instead ruled that civil forfeiture cases must follow the state’s civil procedure rules, which only allow 10 days after judgment to file motions “to vacate, alter, or amend the judgment.” In short, he was too late in filing. Since Espinoza’s motion was “untimely,” the Court of Appeals dismissed his appeal.
“Although I agree that our court is procedurally barred from hearing this appeal,” Judge Waymond Brown wrote in a brief, engaged concurrence, “I cannot see why the trial judge would decide to follow through with the forfeiture of Mr. Espinoza’s $19,894, when the charging agency moved to dismiss without prejudice believing it lacked the evidence to confiscate the money.” “Unsubstantiated suspicions are not just cause for circumventing established judicial practices,” he added.
An Institute for Justice report found that between 2000 and 2014, Arkansas law enforcement agencies seized more than $80 million in cash and over 9,500 vehicles.