Prosecutors in Lincoln dropped criminal charges in a case involving suspected drug money seized from a traffic stop.
A judge ruled the defendant had the right to independently test the cash for traces of narcotics, but found out the money was already gone.
A traffic stop in Interstate 80 in April 2014 led to the seizure of $20,000 in neatly bundled cash and a small amount of suspected cocaine.
Months later, when the attorney representing one of the defendants — Joseph Hacker, 29 — wanted to test the cash, it wasn’t available.
“Unfortunately the cash had gone to the bank and back into the stream of commerce before we had the opportunity to independently test it,” John Berry said.
A judge ruled that under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, the state had a duty to preserve the evidence.
Since it didn’t, it couldn’t use at trial the information that a drug dog detected the odor of narcotics on the cash. Last week, prosecutors dropped felony charges against Hacker.
“I think as we see more and more interstate drug stops where cash is being seized, we’re going to see more attorneys challenging not only the physical evidence but every element of the traffic stop, search and arrest,” Berry said.
Officials with the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office said for logistical reasons and because they deal with so much seized cash, they rarely keep it in evidence after it’s been tested, photographed and counted and the serial numbers recorded.
“Eventually we’re taking it from property and to (a) bank, where we are issued a check,” spokesman Jeff Bliemeister said.
Besides criminal charges, law agencies will seek civil forfeiture proceedings for the money in either federal or state courts. And they have to build additional evidence that the money was involved in drug trafficking beyond just detecting residue on the cash.
“That is one very small element,” Bliemeister said.
After reviewing the Hacker case, the sheriff’s office is not too concerned. A co-defendant pleaded guilty to criminal charges and they could still get the money in the end.
“We are not changing any of our current practices,” Bliemeister said.
Lancaster County deputies made nearly 100 drug busts during traffic stops and they found money in most cases. The money found ranged from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.