by Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Aug. 28, 2014
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bennett on Aug. 26 ruled that the federal government has no right to keep $106,467 in cash that a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge previously ruled had been seized illegally from a drug suspect by Baltimore police. Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Marcia Murphy, in an emailed response to a request for comment, said, “we expect to file a motion for reconsideration.”
The Baltimore City criminal case against the drug suspect, 37-year-old Adolfo-Gitchenos Aduso Lucas of Northeast Baltimore, fell apart last year when his criminal-defense lawyer, Lawrence Rosenberg, persuaded Circuit Court judge Barry Williams that a traffic stop of Lucas and subsequent search of Lucas’ home violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits illegal searches and seizures. As a result, the evidence against Lucas—not only the cash, but also 105 grams of crack cocaine, cutting agents, drug paraphernalia and packaging materials, and a loaded handgun—was suppressed. With no admissible evidence to prove Lucas’ guilt, prosecutors had to abandon the charges against him.
Rosenberg explains in an interview that Baltimore police “stopped the car without probable cause,” and “after they made the arrest, they somehow got a search warrant for Lucas’ house, but there were things in the warrant that were not true. In my opinion, there were credibility issues, and that’s why we won, and the case was dropped.”
After the criminal case against Lucas came to a halt—as did, according to online court records, state-level forfeiture cases seeking to keep three of Lucas’ vehicles—state prosecutors “took no steps to forfeit the seized currency,” Bennett’s ruling explains, but instead “forwarded the currency to the Drug Enforcement Administration.” Assistant U.S. Attorney Stefan Cassella filed a forfeiture case against the cash last August, asserting the U.S. government’s right to keep it as criminally derived assets—a move that, in essence, sought to bring the suppressed evidence against Lucas back to life in civil rather than criminal court.
Cassella’s initial forfeiture filing made no mention of Williams’ ruling that the cash had been seized illegally. But Lucas’ civil attorney, Brian Murphy, raised the issue in a motion for summary judgment filed in February, arguing that the federal government has no right to relitigate the issue. Cassella countered that since the federal government was not a party to the prior proceedings before Williams, it should be allowed to pursue forfeiture of the cash as criminally derived assets.
Bennett sided with Murphy, ruling that “the United States is in privity with the State of Maryland on this issue,” meaning it is asserting “precisely the same legal right in respect to the subject matter involved.” Therefore, he ruled, “no genuine dispute remains that the evidence in this case was unlawfully seized,” so “the illegally seized currency must be excluded from this forfeiture proceeding” and “this Court will grant summary judgment as a matter of law in favor of [Lucas] as to ownership of the currency.”
“We tried to settle the case,” Rosenberg says, “but Cassella would have none of it.” Murphy adds that Cassella “is a good lawyer,” but “you’ve got to pick your cases wisely,” and says “the government can always file an appeal, but I hope they don’t. I think they would be picking the wrong case to appeal.”
Lucas, meanwhile, said in court documents that the money was obtained legally. The $4,500 “found in my vehicle upon my arrest was the proceeds of the sale of a 2000 Volkswagen Jetta” that he had “sold to a co-worker,” who “had paid me . . . shortly before I was arrested.” The money “found in the safe in my house,” meanwhile, “was essentially working capital for and profits from my side occupations—the buying and selling of cars and the buying and selling of properties that I renovate.” Lucas, who explained that he works as “a quality control inspector at Elite Spice in Jessup,” where he has worked “for many years,” stated that “the original source of much of the working capital for these side occupations was the proceeds of the sale of a house that I and a partner bought, renovated, and resold in 2007 for a profit of approximately $126,000.”
Once Lucas gets his cash back, courtesy of Bennett’s ruling, his working capital will be replenished—partially anyhow, given the expense of fighting the government in court. Despite the financial hit, though, he can rest on the laurels of having beaten prosecutors in two courts—and perhaps having sent a message to Baltimore police to keep their cases clean and credible.