Arkansas will keep Texan's $19,894

Appeal filed too late to get back money seized in traffic stop

The Arkansas Court of Appeals cited timing and procedural grounds for dismissing the appeal of a Texas driver who lost nearly $20,000 in cash to the state in a seizure during a 2013 traffic stop.

The appeal was filed too late under the rules, the appellate court said.

But despite Wednesday's ruling, one appeals judge took issue with the seizure, writing that he didn't understand why the trial judge refused to let go of the forfeiture after a state attorney tried to drop the proceedings.

In July 2013, Guillermo Espinoza and his girlfriend, Priscila Hernandez, were driving back to Texas after a stop in Memphis when they were pulled over by a state police trooper near Malvern for following too closely, according to court records.

The trooper testified that Espinoza apologized for the violation, for which he was not ticketed, but that during their conversation, the trooper thought Espinoza's story didn't add up. Espinoza told the trooper that the couple were on a one-day trip from Austin to Memphis.

When he spoke with Hernandez, the trooper said, the stories kept changing and "it was like they were in a completely different planet, so to speak."

After getting consent to search the vehicle, the officer found a bag with $19,000. He also found $894 in Espinoza's pocket. Espinoza later claimed he'd gone to Memphis to look at a truck.

The trooper testified that when he told Espinoza he suspected the driver of trafficking in narcotics, Espinoza told him: "I'm through with this type of business. I don't want this kind of work. It's too risky. I'm through."

Though there was neither contraband nor criminal charges, the local prosecutor's office filed a civil complaint for forfeiture of the cash seized during the stop.

But in May 2014, the prosecuting attorney's office filed a motion to dismiss the case, saying it didn't want to pursue the cash. However, in June, citing Espinoza's behavior, Hot Spring County Circuit Judge Chris Williams ordered the forfeiture to continue anyway. Williams said the prosecutor's motion wasn't proper and there were other facts he wanted to hear. Williams ordered a transcription of the conversation captured by the trooper.

"After exhaustive research and effort, I cannot see why the trial judge would decide to follow through with the forfeiture of Mr. Espinoza's $19,894, when the charging agency moved to dismiss ... believing it lacked the evidence to confiscate the money," Court of Appeals Judge Waymond Brown wrote. "I am of the belief that unsubstantiated suspicions are not just cause for circumventing established judicial practices."

Espinoza submitted pay stubs to show that he had a legal and substantial income. In September 2014, the circuit judge ordered that the money be forfeited to the state.

Espinoza's attorney filed a motion for reconsideration and ultimately filed an appeal, arguing that Williams abused his discretion by proceeding with the forfeiture despite the dismissal request from prosecutors. The attorney also said Espinoza's rights were violated and there was no evidence indicating the money was tied to illicit activity.

The problem, according to the Court of Appeals, was that the appellate judges had no right to review a case that fell outside court rules for civil procedure.

Wednesday's opinion found that Espinoza should have filed a motion for appeal within 10 days of Williams' order for forfeiture. Espinoza's motion was filed in late December.

Brown's concurring opinion agreed that the case had to be dismissed because of timelines. But it also criticized Williams for not taking into account the language barrier between Espinoza and the officer or the fact that Hernandez said to Espinoza, "You didn't tell me you had that money. You just told me we were coming to buy a truck."

"Espinoza presented the trial court with numerous paychecks from various construction jobs, as well as tax documents evidencing his argument that the money was lawfully earned," Brown wrote. "Nevertheless, the trial judge ordered forfeiture of the nearly $20,000. In response to Mr. Espinoza's motion for reconsideration, the judge simply stated, 'The Defendant's Motion to Reconsider is denied and without merit.'"

He gave no further explanation.

Metro on 05/05/2016