Federal Judge Grants Default Judgment in Forfeiture Action for Money that Allegedly Smelled Like Marijuana

131298863_626da5f770_z.jpgA federal judge in Minnesota granted a default judgment in a civil forfeiture case involving cash seized at the airport, which the government kept for a seemingly long time while it tried to build a case. The final judgment was, legally speaking, based on the failure of the money’s alleged owner to file an answer or a verified claim. The case began, however, with claims by agents of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that the money “had an overwhelming smell of marijuana.” United States v. $138,121.00 in U.S. Currency, No. 0:14-cv-00198, verif. complaint at 4 (D. Minn., Jan. 21, 2014). DHS agents did not find any drugs during the search at the airport. It took another nine months to find any connection to actual drugs, during which time the money remained in the government’s custody. By the time prosecutors filed the forfeiture complaint, more than a year had passed since the search.

According to the government’s complaint, filed on January 21, 2014, DHS began investigating Robert Casteel on suspicion of marijuana trafficking in January 2013. Investigators learned that he would be traveling through the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport on January 17, 2013, and the complaint claims that they knew he would be carrying a large amount of cash constituting proceeds from drug trafficking. Police officers approached Casteel, who reportedly had a duffel bag and two carry-on roller bags in his possession, in a gate area. He allegedly admitted to having “between $120,000 and $200,000 in cash.” Id. at 3.

Carrying a large amount of U.S. currency is not, by itself, a crime. The officers brought a drug-sniffing dog to the gate area, and prosecutors alleged that it alerted to Casteel’s duffel bag and one of the roller bags. They seized the two bags and allowed Casteel to board his flight, which was bound for Phoenix, Arizona. The bags allegedly contained $138,121 in cash, multiple documents, a laptop computer, and an iPad. The documents allegedly contained information “related to marijuana cultivation and distribution,” id. at 4, and the cash allegedly had the aforementioned smell.

Federal law allows the government to retain custody of seized property for a rather ill-defined period of time while it investigates. The next section of the forfeiture complaint provides details of the government’s investigation of Casteel, both prior and subsequent to the seizure of the cash. This includes the alleged rental of a private airplane, which arrived at a small airport in Minnesota in December 2012 with a large amount of cargo. At least one airport employee allegedly claimed that the cargo smelled like marijuana. Additional allegations, such as evidence of increased electricity consumption at a warehouse in California used by Casteel, still offered nothing beyond a circumstantial connection to illegal drugs.

Police executed a search warrant at the warehouse in September 2013 and found nearly 500 marijuana plants. Casteel’s daughter allegedly corroborated the money’s connection to a drug sale in October. The government filed the forfeiture complaint the following January, alleging that the money was subject to forfeiture as proceeds from the sale of controlled substances. 21 U.S.C. ยง 881(a)(6).

If you are facing charges for an alleged criminal offense, you should seek the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney in order to understand your rights and prepare the best possible defense. For more than 20 years, board-certified criminal defense lawyer Michael J. Brown has represented clients in west Texas in criminal matters. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.

More Blog Posts:

New State (Not Texas) Requires a Criminal Conviction in Civil Forfeiture Cases, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, August 8, 2014
Drug-Sniffing Dogs, Part 2: Are They Even Accurate or Reliable? Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, February 11, 2013
Drug-Sniffing Dogs, Part 1: Supreme Court Reviews Whether They Violate Fourth Amendment Rights, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, February 7, 2013
Photo credit: Nick Gray [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr.