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In re Holloman

Superior Court of Delaware, Kent

July 24, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF: Omar Holloman - $10, 000 in U.S. Currency

          Submitted: July 21, 2017

          Gary E. Junge, Esq. Schmittinger & Rodriquez, P.A.

          Jeffrey J Clark Judge.

         This letter sets forth the Court's decision, after a bench trial, regarding Petitioner Omar Holloman's (hereinafter "Mr. Holloman's") petition for return of property, consisting of $10, 000, seized by the Harrington Police Department on November 1, 2016. The police seized the money from a backpack in his vehicle's trunk. Prior to the seizure, a Harrington officer stopped Mr. Holloman for a seat belt violation. The officer suspected that Mr. Holloman was engaged in drug activity and accordingly requested that a canine officer come to the scene to screen his car for drugs. Thereafter, the dog alerted for the presence of drugs. After searching Mr. Holloman's car, officers found money, but found no drugs or drug paraphernalia. An ion scan of the money revealed cocaine residue, thus engendering this forfeiture action pursuant to 16 Del. C. § 4784.

         The primary dispute at trial was whether the allegedly prolonged detention at the scene constituted a separate seizure apart from the initial stop for the seat belt violation. Mr. Holloman argues that United States Constitutional Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure analysis applies in the context of civil forfeiture actions and should be considered in this context pursuant to his motion in limine in the same vein as the Court would consider a motion to suppress in the criminal setting. The parties identified no Delaware case law examining this issue and the Court located none.

         In this case, the Court elects not to address Mr. Holloman's argument that, at the outset, all evidence in this matter be excluded. The Court declines to do so because the statute separately and organically provides for a search and seizure analysis that permits a petitioner to recover seized property if he or she establishes that a seizure was illegal. The Court finds, after considering all of the evidence presented at trial, that Mr. Holloman met the statutory burden of demonstrating an illegal seizure. After considering the evidence presented at trial, the Court also finds that Mr. Holloman had a lawful possessory interest in the property at issue. Accordingly, the State must return the $10, 000 in seized funds to him.

         Findings of Fact

         The Court finds the following facts, presented at trial, to a preponderance of the evidence. On November 1, 2016, Mr. Holloman drove his Virginia registered vehicle through Harrington and was stopped by a Harrington officer for not wearing his seat belt. The officer noticed he was in a Virginia tagged vehicle, and that there was no luggage in his back seat. Furthermore, the officer asked Mr. Holloman about his destination, and he responded that it was "up the road" but then refused to provide additional information.

         At that point, the officer returned to his vehicle for a few minutes to run Mr. Holloman's information. Upon concluding what, in the officer's concession, was a sufficient inquiry to issue the seat belt violation, the officer returned to Mr. Holloman's car and told him to exit the vehicle. Mr. Holloman complied but then the officer and Mr. Holloman argued about the purpose of his continued detention. The officer informed Mr. Holloman that he had called for a K-9 unit to screen his vehicle and, in the officer's words, told Mr. Holloman that he was now being detained "on my time."

         Within a few additional minutes, the K-9 unit appeared on site and the dog alerted twice on the vehicle. A search ensued and revealed no drugs or drug paraphernalia. Additionally, the State presented no evidence that Mr. Holloman was charged with any criminal activity other than the seat belt violation. The police, however, located $10, 000 in cash in a backpack in Mr. Holloman's trunk. Thereafter, the Harrington police department transported the cash to a Delaware National Guard non-commissioned officer who performed an ion scan. The scan revealed that the money was contaminated with cocaine.

         At trial, Mr. Holloman testified that his mother gave him the money for purposes of investing in property and that he was in the process of looking for properties in Philadelphia when the police officer stopped him. His mother also testified and corroborated his testimony. However, the Court finds that statements in his petition were somewhat inconsistent because he wrote that he earned the money through other legitimate means.

         Standards for this Civil Forfeiture Proceeding

         This civil forfeiture matter is governed by the provisions of 16 Del. C. § 4784. In a civil forfeiture proceeding, the State has the initial burden of proving probable cause.[1] If the State meets this burden, then the burden shifts to the petitioner to rebut the presumption of forfeiture.[2] To rebut this presumption, the petitioner must prove that (1) he or she has a possessory interest in the property, and (2) the property was unlawfully seized or was not subject to forfeiture pursuant to this section.[3]

         Mr. Holloman incorrectly argues that the "probable cause" burden placed upon the State refers to the State's burden to show that there was probable cause for the search. The probable cause reference, however, as far as the initial burden is concerned focuses on whether the State has established probable cause, meaning a fair probability, that one of the itemized purposes for forfeiture outlined in subsection (a) are met.[4] Separately, the reference to "unlawfully seized" in the portion of the statute placing the burden upon the petitioner to prove an illegal seizure cannot be reasonably read to reference anything other than an analysis regarding Fourth ...

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