Can Georgia police keep confiscating cash?

 

ATLANTA — A sheriff’s deputy pulled over Jeffrey Mordica because his car windows were tinted too dark and wound up confiscating $63,000 in cash without ever charging him with a crime or even investigating one.

This week, Mordica’s attorney asked the state Supreme Court for the money back in a case likely to fuel a debate in the General Assembly between the state’s sheriffs and its conservative lawmakers.

Mordica told officers in Lamar County near Macon that he was carrying the cash to Atlanta to buy a restaurant he had heard about. He said he owned three Tallahassee, Fla., businesses that generated a lot of cash.

The officer who pulled him over testified in an earlier hearing that Mordica appeared nervous, even after being told he would only get a warning for the window tinting. Plus, the car smelled of air freshener, and he was on Interstate 75, a known route for drug dealers.

Mordica refused to allow his car voluntarily searched, so the deputy had the drug-sniffing dog in the back of his patrol car to walk around it. The officer didn’t need permission once the dog signaled the smell of illegal drugs.

No drugs were found, only the cash and three cellphones.

The justices essentially wound up debating one another as they were questioning Mordica’s attorney and Lamar County’s prosecutor.

“Your client’s defense is ‘I had no idea this money could be related to drugs.’ Why isn’t it relevant to show he had (prior drug convictions to demonstrate that he had) opportunity and the knowledge to disprove his claim of a mistake?” asked Justice David Nahmias.

Justice Robert Benham said, “It’s not unusual for motorists to be nervous when they are pulled over by a police officer.”

Later, Benham said that having cash in hand when negotiating a purchase often results in a discount.

Justice Carol Hunstein picked up on the detail that Mordica had testified that he had changed his life and become a law-abiding citizen after serving his most recent, 12-year sentence for drugs in Florida but that he had not paid any taxes since his release 18 months before the traffic stop.

“It’s hard to make a lot of money to pay taxes on when you just got out of prison,” she said.

That’s when Assistant District Attorney Scott Johnson said Mordica owes tax on the confiscated money.

The justices have four months to decide the case, which will have it coming at the start of the next session of the General Assembly. Legislators put off voting on a change to weaken the state forfeiture law in the last session when nearly every county sheriff spent the day of the scheduled vote sitting in the House of Representatives gallery making their opposition obvious.

Those wanting to change the law say sheriffs too dependent on the confiscated cash often cut corners that violate motorists’ rights. The sheriffs say they follow the rules and that the money is needed for bulletproof vests and other necessities that tight county budgets don’t cover.

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