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In re $13

Superior Court of Delaware

December 28, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF: $13, 584.00 in United States Currency Petitioner: Jeffrey Crippen

          Submitted: November 29, 2018

         Decision After Bench Trial Upon Petition for Return of Property Denied.

          Jeffrey Crippen, pro se, Petitioner.

          Gregory A. Babowal, Esquire of the Department of Justice, Dover, Delaware; attorney for the State of Delaware.

          Mr. Jeffrey Crippen, pro se Gregory A. Babowal, Esquire.

          ORDER

          William L. Witham. Jr. Resident Judge.

         INTRODUCTION

         Petitioner Jeffrey Crippen ("Petitioner") has filed an application for Return of Property pursuant to 16 Del. C. § 4784 and Superior Court Civil Rule 71.3. The property sought to be returned is U.S. currency amounting to S13, 584.00[1] seized by the Dover Police Department following his arrest on felony charges, including drug and weapons related charges, on September 21, 2015. On November 15, 2016, the Petitioner was convicted in this Court of Possession of a Deadly Weapon by a Person Prohibited and Possession of Firearm Ammunition By a Person Prohibited.[2] His current application for return of property was initially referred to the Commissioner pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 132(a), but was reassigned to this Court on April 16, 2018. A bench trial was held on November 29, 2018 and the Court reserved its decision.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Petitioner's application is DENIED.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On September 21, 2015, law enforcement officers from the Dover Police Department executed a search warrant at 92 Village Drive in Dover, Delaware, -naming the residence and Petitioner as subjects of the search. The search warrant stated the officers were expecting to find drugs on the premises in connection with the Petitioner's alleged drug dealing.

         At the trial, the State called Detectives Jordan Miller and Anthony DiGirolomo, and Corporal Joseph Bauer, an officer on the Dover police Department's K-9 unit and handler of "Gunner," Corporal Bauer's drug detection dog. After the Petitioner was detained, [3] Detective Miller and company observed and seized several items of drug paraphernalia and other items related to drug dealing on the structure's lower level that suggested the Petitioner was a drug dealer.[4]

         Upon searching the master bedroom, police officers seized several bottles of pills prescribed to the Petitioner, paperwork with the Petitioner's name on it, and a firearm loaded with rounds.[5] Notably, the police also discovered and seized three separate amounts of U.S. currency found within the room. The bundles of currency amounted to $54.00, $3, 630.00, and $9, 900.00.[6]

         Dover police then searched two vehicles parked at the 92 Village Drive residence.[7] In the Honda Accord ("Accord"), police discovered the Petitioner's probation paperwork, along with ten bags of crack-cocaine, totaling 5.2 grams. As part of their investigation, Dover police determined that the Accord was in the current possession of the Petitioner.[8] Detective DiGirolomo further testified that during questioning, the Petitioner made a statement to him that he believed, based on his twenty-six years of experience, was consistent with drug dealing.[9]

         After the seizure of the crack-cocaine, Dover police subjected two of the three bundles of the seized currency ($3, 630.00 and $9, 900.00 bundles) to a sniff test. The sniff test was overseen by Corporal Bauer and performed by Gunner. After providing testimony on Gunner's training, Corporal Bauer walked the Court through the sniff test process, illustrating his duties and responsibilities as well as Gunner's. Corporal Bauer testified that both sniff tests resulted in two positive hits, one hit per bundle, for controlled substances.

         On August 9, 2017, subsequent to his criminal trial and conviction, the Petitioner filed the present return of property application pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 71.3. The State initially filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the Petitioner's motion was untimely.[10] The Commissioner, after initially granting the State's motion, vacated her decision on December 5, 2017, and indicated that the State failed to provide proper notice to the Petitioner of the forfeitures at his residence of record.[11] The Petitioner's case was then transferred to this Court on April 16, 2018 and on November 29, 2018, a one day bench trial was held, and the Court reserved opinion.

         PARTIES CONTENTIONS

         In an attempt to rebut the State's case, the Petitioner offered muddled and conflicting statements accounting how he came to be with the seized currency. However, he has consistently maintained that the seized currency was not related to drug dealing and that the State had not proven the required nexus between the money and drug activity. As the Court understood it, the Petitioner asserted that the seized funds were derived from legitimate sources, including accumulated funds from his 2012-2014 employment and two $5000.00 loans, totaling $10, 000.00, made to him by Ms. Mayben and Mr. Kenny Thomas. However, the Petitioner did not provide any claim for, nor explanation for, the currency equaling $54.00, other than its inclusion on his initial application.

         At trial, the State asserted that the seized funds were subject to 16 Del. C. § 4784 forfeiture based on probable cause established by (1) the seized currency being round in dose proximity to the crack-cocaine and things related to drugs[12] and (2) trace amounts of controlled substances on the seized currency. Additionally, the State argued that the Petitioner did not show, by preponderance of the evidence, that the seized currency was not subject to forfeiture pursuant to the statute.

         LEGAL STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In Delaware, civil forfeitures are governed by provisions of 16 Del. C. § 4784. Section 4784 was enacted by our Legislature in an attempt to "cripple the trafficking and sale of illegal drugs."[13]

         In a civil forfeiture proceeding, "the State has the initial burden of proving probable cause [for the institution of forfeiture] and... if this is met, the petitioner has the burden of rebutting that presumption of forfeiture."[14] The State is required to demonstrate that there are reasonable grounds for belief of guilt, supported by less than prima facie proof but more than mere suspicion, and that the money was furnished or intended to be furnished in exchange for illegal substances, or the profits or proceeds of sales related thereto.[15] The State's burden to demonstrate probable cause applies to each act the police took in gaining possession of the property in question.[16] The burden then shifts to the petitioner, who must then prove (1) a possessory interest in the property; and that (2) the property was unlawfully seized or was not subject to forfeiture.[17]

         DISCUSSION

         As a preliminary matter, the Court would be remiss if it omitted the fact that the Petitioner was acquitted at his criminal trial of all drug related charges. However, an acquittal or dismissal of charges in a criminal proceeding does not preclude civil proceedings pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 7l.3.[18]

         A. Probable Cause - Close Proximity

         The State first argues that the seized currency is subject to forfeiture pursuant to 16 Del. C. § 4784 because the seized currency was found in close proximity to the 5.2 grams of crack-cocaine seized from the Accord parked on the premises, [19] and drug paraphernalia seized within the residence. Here, the Court agrees with the State and finds probable cause demonstrated through close proximity.

         Section 4784, in part, provides:

All moneys, negotiable instruments or securities found in close proximity to forfeitable controlled substances, or to forfeitable records of the importation, manufacture [, ] or distribution of controlled substances are presumed to be forfeitable...[20]

         What constitutes close proximity was examined in the case of In re $1, 165.00 U.S. Currency,[21] ...


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