The legal fight over the police seizure of $17,000 in Mooresville took on a Whac-A-Mole quality this week with a judge again holding the town in contempt only to see town officials file another appeal to stop her.
On Monday — and for the second time this year — Iredell County District Judge Christine Underwood threatened town leaders and police with jail time for not returning Jermaine Sanders’ money.
The judge gave officials seven days to comply with her signed order or she would start putting people behind bars.
A court hearing, if necessary, would determine which town officials that would be. But Sanders’ attorney, Ashley Cannon of Statesville, said the most likely targets are police Chief Ron Campurciani and Town Manager Randy Hemann.
All that was put on hold Tuesday, when in response to Underwood’s latest contempt order, town officials announced they again planned to turn to the N.C. Court of Appeals “seeking immediate relief from this ruling.”
According to the town statement, Mooresville police “acted appropriately and in accordance with the law, and this will be established both in federal court and when the court of appeals reviews these proceedings.”
Whether that prediction is borne out by the state and federal courts remains to be seen. At the very least, the town’s decision to extend the fight over the money makes it increasingly likely that town taxpayers will spend far more in legal costs than police will ever receive from their November seizure.
Cannon said in a statement Tuesday that the Iredell courts have found that the seizure was “illegal and a violation of Mr. Sanders’ constitutional rights.” Attorneys and public must respect court orders, she said, why not the Mooresville police?
“We deny that the town and police department have acted appropriately in this matter, and deny that Judge Underwood’s orders are somehow overshadowed by the police department having involved the federal government in this seizure,” Cannon said. “We further deny that the Town and police department are incapable of returning Mr. Sanders’ money because that argument is contrary to state law.”
If this all sounds familiar, it is. In February, a furious Underwood issued an identical contempt order demanding the return of Sanders’ money.
But then the town appealed and the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a claim for the cash in federal court. Meaning, that five months after a judge first ordered the recouping of Sanders’ money he still does not have it. After this week’s legal jousting, Sanders’ wait will be even longer.
Underwood’s most recent directive attempted to simplify things. First, she threw out the town’s appeal to the N.C. Court of Appeals on procedural grounds then ordered the town to make good on its debt or else.
“The answer is easy. The punishment for civil contempt is incarceration (until the court order is complied with),” Underwood told the Observer during a phone interview Monday night.
“I haven’t had a civil contempt case where the defendant is a town. But because the law is pretty standard, it’s no different procedurally than your average, everyday deadbeat parent who doesn’t pay child support.”
Except, this case has been anything but routine from the start.
Warrantless search outside motel
On Nov. 16, police say they found the money in Sanders’ rented pickup outside a Mooresville motel during a warrantless search. Police also say they discovered a small amount of marijuana buds. Sanders, a convicted felon from Connecticut who was visiting his daughter at the time, was charged with misdemeanor drug possession. His case is pending.
The money chase quickly became far more complicated. Cannon promptly filed a motion for the return of her client’s cash, and Iredell District Judge Deborah Brown, since retired, scheduled a hearing for Nov. 24.
The day before, however, a police detective sent a certified check for the entire amount — $16,761 — to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Police then showed up in court the next day to say they could not return Sanders’ money because they no longer had it.
Attorney David Smith, one of the country’s foremost legal critics of the controversial police practice of “civil asset forfeiture” described the Mooresville case as one of the most outrageous he’d come across.
“That’s disrespect of the court in the extreme ... This is law enforcement out of control,” he told the Observer earlier this month.
Underwood adopted a similar tone in February when she first found the town and police in contempt.
“I don’t know who to put in jail, but somebody needs to go,” the judge told the Observer at the time.
Civil asset forfeiture was created to siphon off the resources of gangs, drug rings and other illicit enterprises. It allows police to seize, keep or sell any property they deem to have been involved in a crime. The amount of property and cash confiscated each year now runs into the billions.
But critics say individual residents too often are unfairly victimized by government seizures of cash, cars and homes, which law enforcement agencies can keep even in the absence of criminal charges or convictions.
If local police departments need more motivation to stop and search, federal law provides it. Cops can recoup up to 80 percent of the money they turn over to the feds, which Cannon says explains why Mooresville police were so quick to write a check to the Border Patrol in November.
Attorney: Legal fight ‘shocks the conscience’
In a 15-page filing last month in federal court, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte detailed Sanders’ lengthy criminal background and argued that his money is likely tied to illegal activity and thus is open to seizure.
In a federal filing on Tuesday, Sanders accused police of illegally taking his money and cited the Iredell County court orders as grounds for its return.
But as far as Underwood is concerned, that’s a different legal fight for a different court on a different day. In essence, she said, the feds can keep that money as long as Mooresville pays up.
On Tuesday, Cannon again expressed disbelief that five months after the first court order, her client is still waiting for his check.
“I just don’t understand all this time and effort over the money they seized or the small amount of marijuana they found when he wasn’t even there,” she said.
“It still sort of shocks the conscience that they would go to this extreme.”
Given Tuesday’s notice of another appeal, the town may only be getting started.