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Court rules man can't keep money found in suitcase

Associated Press
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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