Justices allow seizure, turnover of $60K in alleged drug money


Olivia Covington for www.theindianalawyer.com

The Indiana Supreme Court has upheld the seizure of $60,000 in cash believed to be drug money, finding the officer who intercepted the parcel holding the cash had probable cause to think the package was related to drug trafficking. The unanimous ruling also upholds the turnover of the cash to the federal government, though it doesn’t address whether the money will be forfeited.

The case of Michael Hodges v. State of Indiana, 19S-MI-117, began in 2017, when Detective Brian Thorla and his K-9 partner, Hogan, were investigating parcels at an Indianapolis FedEx shipping facility. One package caught Thorla’s attention because it was being shipped to California, was addressed to “Christopher Smith,” was in a new FedEx box, had been paid for with cash and was shipped priority overnight with no signature required upon delivery. In Thorla’s experience, these factors, including shipping to a drug “source” state and the use of a generic name, indicated involvement with drug trafficking.

Hogan twice alerted to a narcotics odor coming from the package, shipped by Michael Hodges, so Thorla obtained a warrant to search the parcel for “controlled substances…, records of drug trafficking and proceeds of drug trafficking,… involving the proactive attempts of concealing currency as listed in the affidavit … .” The warrant required Thorla “to seize such property, or any part thereof, found on such search.”

When Thorla opened Hodge’s package, he found a vacuum-sealed plastic container filled with $60,990 in cash. The container was surrounded by “padded packs,” some of which are often used to conceal odors.

Hogan then alerted on the cash, so police seized the money and obtained a court order to transfer it to the federal government. The transfer was stayed pending appeal, at which point the Court of Appeals determined the seizure of the cash was unlawful.

But after hearing oral arguments in April, the Supreme Court upheld the seizure a Thursday opinion. Chief Justice Loretta Rush, writing for the unanimous court, said that under the totality of the circumstances, Thorla had probable cause to seize the cash.

The telltale signs that the parcel was possibly involved in drug trafficking gave Thorla probable cause to seek the search warrant, Rush said. And what he found inside the box — multiple layers of sealed packaging, a vacuum-sealed plastic container, the large amount of rubber-banded cash — gave him probable cause to seize the money.

“Might each of these circumstances be the result of innocent behavior? Yes,” the chief wrote. “It may well be that the cash is not proceeds of drug trafficking. It may be as Hodges asserts – that he mailed the $60,990.00 to a World Series ticket holder in a lawful exchange for expensive tickets.

“But the existence of a post hoc innocent explanation does not preclude probable cause from forming,” she continued. “Here, the combination of circumstances gave Detective Thorla reason to believe that the cash was proceeds of drug trafficking. That is enough to meet the probable-cause standard, making the seizure lawful and the turnover proper.”

In a footnote, the court disapproved of the 2017 decision in Bowman v. State, 81 N.E.3d 1127 (Ind. Ct. App.), modified on denial of reh’g (Ind. Ct. App. 2017) — which Hodges relied on and the COA cited — to the extent that it conflicts with Thursday’s decision.

Rush ended by noting that just because the cash is seized and turned over to the feds does not mean it will be forfeited – the government also has the option of returning it.

“If it seeks forfeiture, the court overseeing that proceeding may assess any innocent explanations for the circumstances and determine who is entitled to the property,” she wrote. “We decide only that the turnover from state to federal authorities is proper.”