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Return of Cash from Police When No Forfeiture Action

Brian Wright was arrested in 2014 in connection with the armed robbery of several Las Vegas jewelry stores.  During his arrest, police seized $23,513 from Wright’s attic pursuant to a warrant.  When questioned about the money, Wright denied living in the building where he was arrested and denied that the money was his.

Wright was then charged with conspiracy, Hobbs Act robbery, brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. 

Most of the charges were dropped after the U.S. district court judge sanctioned the government attorney for discovery violations and Wright ultimately pled to a single count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Despite earlier denying he lived in the building where the money was found and denying the money was his, he then asked for the return of the $23,513.  He claimed he won the money gambling and in gifts from friends.

The district court denied Wright’s motion, ruling that Wright failed to show he was the rightful owner of the money.  On appeal, the United Stated Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Las Vegas (California is within the Ninth Circuit, so this ruling applies to California) vacated the district court ruling because it improperly relieved the government “of its threshold burden of establishing that the cash was contraband or subject to forfeiture.

On remand, the district court then successfully rebutted Wright’s claim of ownership by establishing that the money was stolen money and contraband.

Wright then got out of prison and was arrested in 2017 on suspicion of sex trafficking.  Officers searched Wright’s home and seized $40,000 inside a mattress.  The money was arranged in $10,000 bundles with distinctive gold bands that said Silverton Casino on the bands. 

After Wright was sentenced to prison, Wright moved for return of the $40,000 under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(g), arguing that he was never convicted of any crime related to the money and hence he is presumptively entitled to its return.

The government opposed Wright’s motion, arguing that the money was from a robbery of the Silverton Casino by one of Wright’s associates several weeks earlier.  At an evidentiary hearing, a Silverton Casino employee testified that he was robbed of $40,000 in cash by a man wearing a hoodie sweatshirt with a gun and that the cash was in four $10,000 bundles with a distinctive gold band that said Silverton Casino on the bands.

Wright claimed that he won the money at the Silverton Casino while gambling, but the government offered the testimony of a casino employee that it was required by law to register the name of anyone who wins over $3,000 and Wright’s name was not registered in its records.

The district court denied Wright’s motion for the return of the cash and Wright appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Ninth Circuit began its analysis by reminding that in our constitutional system, “[g]overnment confiscation of private property is disfavored.”  United States v. $191,910.00 in U.S. Currency (9th Cir., 1994) 16 F. 3d 1051, 1068.

Rule 41 (“Search and Seizure”) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure permits the government to apply for a judicial warrant authorizing the temporary seizure of property pending investigation and adjudication.  It provides: “A person aggrieved by an unlawful search and seizure of property or by the deprivation of property may move for the property’s return.  The motion must be filed in the district where the property was seized.”

In Wright’s case, the Ninth Circuit agreed that he is presumptively entitled to lawful possession.  However, the Ninth Circuit also determined that he was unable to provide a clear, satisfactory explanation for the origin of the money, so the government was found to have successfully carried its burden of demonstrating he was not entitled to lawful possession of the money.

Amidst the appellate court’s discussion of the facts, the court suggested that the money should be returned to the Silverton Casino and the various jewelry stores that were robbed by Mr. Wright, but the court did not make such an order because the request was not before it.

For more information about the return of property back from the police when a case is over, please click on the following articles:
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