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Fearful couple sues to recover $14,000 seized in raid

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nury Barrera Lugo, her husband and a houseguest were terrified when 13 Baltimore city and county police officers burst into their Essex apartment last December with a search warrant arising from a city drug investigation.

The police found no drugs and made no arrests, but they did take the Lugos' savings -- $14,190 in cash -- from their bedroom as suspected drug proceeds.

Although the Lugos kept quiet for months, they were desperate by April and hired lawyer Bryan A. Levitt, who filed a civil action last week in Baltimore County Circuit Court to force the county attorney to return the money.

Ironically, Mr. Levitt said, the wording of Maryland's forfeiture law makes it harder to get the couple's cash back because they weren't charged with a crime.

Ms. Barrera said she was cooking for her planned birthday celebration the next day when the police broke through their door shortly before 8 p.m. Dec. 10. She said she didn't notice the officers' uniforms or their warrant -- only their guns.

"I thought they were the people who come to kill you, the people who come to your door to steal your stuff. I got into the closet in the kitchen, waiting for them to kill everybody," said Ms. Barrera, 24, who emigrated from Venezuela six years ago.

The officers had a search warrant from a city judge -- based on surveillance of two cars that had visited a suspected East Baltimore drug operation and also had stopped at the Lugos' apartment. They had information that the city dealers had a stash house somewhere in Essex.

Shortly before they broke through the Lugos' door, according to the police report, the officers had stopped a car leaving the apartment complex. The report claimed that the officers found a small amount of marijuana in the pockets of a man in the car, but he was never prosecuted.

"They were looking for drugs. We don't deal with drugs," Ms. Barrera said.

Rigoberto Guzman, 39, who was visiting from the Dominican Republic, "was on the floor screaming," she recalled. Ms. Barrera's husband, Jose Luis Lugo, 24, a Puerto Rican native, told her to stay calm and talk with the police because her English was better.

Ms. Barrera said the cash was money they had saved from their jobs as clothing-factory workers, and she was hoping to use some to pay for a computer course.

"I had my money in my house because at home [in Venezuela] my family had their money in the bank, and the bank broke, so my family lost all their money. All the people lost their money, so I don't put any money in the bank," she said.

But when the police found the cash and asked her about it, Ms. Barrera said, "I was afraid. I don't know if it's legal to have money in your house or not, so I said, 'No. I don't know.' "

Police also took $1,100 from Mr. Guzman's wallet, the Lugos said.

After the raid, the couple were afraid to try to get the money back. "These people didn't even make a peep for five months," said Mr. Levitt, who also represents Mr. Guzman.

Mr. Levitt said that when he asked the county to return the cash, Assistant County Attorney Lee S. Thomson replied, "Show me where it says I have to give you back the money."

Mr. Thomson disputed that account. "I never said anything like that to him. I told him the law was not what he said it was."

The two attorneys did agree that if the couple had been charged with a crime, the county would have had a 90-day limit under Maryland law to seek forfeiture. But no notice was filed, they said, and the money has been in the county's general fund since Jan. 21.

Mr. Thomson said the county "absolutely" intends to return the money, but wants assurance that it belongs to the Lugos and Mr. Guzman.

He said the case is muddied by the police report, which says the $1,100 was taken from another man -- not Mr. Guzman -- and places other suspects near the complex the night of the raid.

Ms. Barrera said no one else was in the apartment.

Mr. Thomson declared: "We're in rightful possession of the money. We want to give it back, but we want to make sure it's being paid to the right people.

"If the police come into your house, with you and three other people there, and on the table is $10,000 . . . whose $10,000 is it? It makes no difference to the county, but the county doesn't want to have to pay it twice, or three times, or four times or six times."

That's nonsense, Mr. Levitt said, noting that the money was taken from the Lugos' home and no one else has claimed it. He said the inventory from the search warrant -- the official record of the raid -- contradicts the police report and lists "$1,100 in wallet of Guzman."

Of four suspects listed on the police report, Ms. Barrera said she knew one and had met another once -- but had no knowledge of drug activity.

After the raid, she said, she became distraught and quit her job because "everybody is looking at me like I sell drugs." Meanwhile, her husband was laid off from his job.

Now, seven months after the raid and without their $14,000 savings, Ms. Barrera said they are losing their apartment for nonpayment of rent and have had their telephone service cut off. She said she is staying with friends, while her husband has recently found work in York, Pa.

Ms. Barrera said that her furniture already may have been confiscated because she couldn't pay a $55 storage bill and that someone came through the door broken down by police and burglarized their home.

"I'm afraid," she said. "I'm afraid of the police."

Mr. Levitt said, "Her frame of reference regarding banks and authorities is a whole different thing. Where they come from, the police are quite different from the police here."

The Lugos have no criminal records, he said. "But Hispanics are systematically being targeted everywhere in Baltimore." Mr. Levitt said. He said the Lugos are acquainted with other Hispanics, but that doesn't mean they know if they are dealing drugs.

Meanwhile, the lawyers are arguing over the interpretation of Maryland's forfeiture law, which allows cash to be seized if there is a good probability that it represents drug proceeds.

Mr. Thomson said Maryland law "does not, apparently, specifically contemplate what happens if the person from whom money is seized is never charged."

Assistant Attorney General Leo W. Ottey Jr., who handles forfeiture cases for the state, agreed that the law says only that the state must seek forfeiture "within 90 days from the date of final disposition of the underlying criminal proceeding."

But he disagreed with the county's interpretation, arguing that long-standing principles of common law require that the money be returned within 90 days of the seizure if there are no charges.

"I think they've got to give it back -- and they've got to give it back right away," he said.

Mr. Ottey conceded that the amount of money in this case made it unusual. "Fifteen thousand in cash found in someone's house could be consistent with legitimate money, but also is quite typical of drug dealing," he said.

On the other hand, he said, "You have to be mindful that some people don't put their money in banks."

Mr. Levitt said he's never had trouble recovering seized property before, but the county's delay in this case demonstrates a loophole in the forfeiture law that he wants the legislature to close.

"The bottom line is, can the police walk in and just take your money, stereo, jewelry, etc. and just keep it? I thought this was still America," he said.

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