Court rules man can't keep money found in suitcase
Published February 17, 2006
TALLAHASSEE - A motorist who told Miami-Dade County police a suitcase in his back seat contained clothing cannot claim the nearly $500,000 found inside, a sharply divided Florida Supreme Court decided Thursday.
The justices ruled 4-3 that Walter Velez lacked standing to challenge the confiscation under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act because he "failed to demonstrate that he was a person in possession of the currency at the time of the seizure." He could have done that by offering a sworn statement claiming possession at a preliminary hearing, Justice Kenneth Bell wrote in the majority opinion.
In dissent, Justice Harry Lee Anstead wrote that requiring such a statement is illogical because Velez's lawyer, instead, had offered one from a police officer already saying Velez had possession of the suitcase.
An officer saw the suitcase after stopping Velez for a traffic violation in 2002. Inside, he found $489,800, mostly in bundles of $20 bills. Velez, who was not charged with a crime, claimed the money wasn't his and had been given to him by a stranger, the officer said in his statement.
Velez's attorney, Paul Morris, disputed that, contending Velez always has said the money was his. Velez invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when asked about the money's source, Morris said.
"Possession of money is not yet a crime in this country," the lawyer said. "Some people keep their life savings in their houses."
Fifteen days after the traffic stop, Velez challenged the seizure.
[Last modified February 17, 2006, 02:15:35]
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