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03/03/95 PEOPLE STATE ILLINOIS v. $1

March 3, 1995

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
$1,124,905.00 U.S. CURRENCY, AND ONE 1988 CHEVROLET ASTRO VAN (VIN 1GNCM15Z1JB169536), DEFENDANTS, AND JESUS MENA, CLAIMANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from Circuit Court of McLean County. No. 93MR96. Honorable Luther H. Dearborn, Judge Presiding.

As Corrected March 31, 1995. Petition for Rehearing Denied April 13, 1995. Released for Publication April 13, 1995.

Honorable James A. Knecht, P. J., Honorable John T. McCULLOUGH, J., Honorable Robert W. Cook, J. McCULLOUGH and Cook, JJ., concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Knecht

PRESIDING JUSTICE KNECHT delivered the opinion of the court:

Claimant Jesus Mena appeals from the decision of the circuit court granting a default judgment in favor of the State in a forfeiture proceeding conducted pursuant to the Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act (Forfeiture Act) (725 ILCS 150/1 et seq. (West 1992)). We affirm.

On July 9, 1993, Sergeant Michael Snyders of the Illinois State Police noticed a van with its hood raised stopped on the side of Interstate 55 in McLean County. He stopped to assist and saw claimant standing outside the van, as well as a woman identified as Elena Mena, claimant's wife. Elena was holding a baby.

Sergeant Snyders asked claimant and his wife some questions. Claimant appeared nervous and stated they were traveling to St. Louis so he could find work. Elena appeared frightened and stated they were traveling to Texas. She would look at claimant before answering. Claimant stated the van belonged to a friend whom he had known for a year, although he could not remember his name. In addition, claimant possessed a pager. Sergeant Snyders ran a computer check of the van's registration and found the van registered to Melvin DeJesus. Claimant did not know the address or the phone number of the owner, nor could he explain how he intended to return the van to its owner. Sergeant Snyders told claimant he was free to go but expressed suspicion of claimant's story. He asked claimant ifhe was carrying any large amounts of cash in the vehicle. Claimant laughed and said no. Claimant also declared he was not transporting anything in the van for anyone else.

After another officer arrived, Sergeant Snyders again told claimant he was free to go, but asked him, in both English and Spanish, for permission to search the van for drugs or money. Claimant responded "go ahead" in English and opened the van's side door for the officers. The officers noticed suspicious-looking flooring in the van and asked claimant if the van had been altered in any way. Claimant replied he did not know anything about the van. The officers discovered a trap door and called for backup. After backup arrived, they opened the trap door and discovered the entire floor compartment was full of cash bundles. Claimant was handcuffed and read his Miranda rights. He insisted the money was not his, he did not know who owned it, he did not know it was there, nor did he know anything else about it.

The officers towed the van and its contents to a police station, where they counted a total of 112 cellophane- and duct-tape-wrapped packages of currency with the number "10" written on them, and one with the number "5." A count of the money revealed a total of $1,124,905 in United States currency.

During the counting of the currency, claimant was interviewed by police investigators. Claimant again repeated he had no knowledge of the money contained in the van. However, he admitted he had been directed by Melvin DeJesus to drive the van to El Paso, Texas, and was paid $300 cash for traveling expenses. Claimant explained when he arrived in El Paso, he was to call DeJesus at one of two telephone numbers. Upon additional interviews, claimant admitted DeJesus had told him money was in the van, but not how much. Claimant also admitted he was paid $500 in travel expenses, and was to receive an additional $3,500 when the van was delivered. Claimant agreed to make telephone contact with DeJesus with police investigators listening to the conversation. When claimant was able to contact DeJesus and explain what had happened, DeJesus told claimant "tolerate the whip and keep your mouth shut."

Police investigators attempted to locate DeJesus, but the occupants of the address listed on the vehicle registration claimed they had never heard of Melvin DeJesus, nor did they recognize his photo from the Secretary of State's records. Further, the social security number listed on Melvin DeJesus' driver's license returned to a Melvin DeJesus, age 11 years.

Thereafter, the State filed a complaint for forfeiture of the money, and claimant filed an answer to the complaint. The trial courtgranted the State's motion to strike claimant's answer upon agreement of the parties. Claimant then filed a motion to strike the State's complaint. The trial court granted the State leave to amend the complaint and accepted the State's amended complaint. The trial court denied claimant's motion to strike. Claimant filed another answer, which the State again moved to strike, alleging claimant's answer did not comply with the requirements of the Forfeiture Act. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss on the basis claimant lacked standing, and granted him 14 days leave to amend his answer, but he filed no further answer. The State filed a motion for default and an affidavit in support of its motion. The affidavit was signed by Sergeant Snyders and stated the above-described circumstances surrounding the seizure of the money. At a hearing on the State's motion, neither claimant nor his attorney appeared. The trial court granted the State's motion for default and entered a written order granting forfeiture of the money. Claimant now appeals.

Claimant asserts the trial court erred by (1) denying his motion to strike the complaint for forfeiture, (2) finding probable cause the money was traceable to an illegal drug transaction, and (3) striking his answer and ruling he did not have standing to contest the forfeiture. We note ordinarily we would address the third issue first, because if claimant lacked standing to contest the forfeiture, we would not need to address the other issues. However, we need not decide whether claimant had standing, because regardless of whether claimant had standing to contest the forfeiture, the trial court did not err in granting forfeiture.

The Forfeiture Act sets out procedures for the civil forfeiture of property believed to be involved with drug transactions. Section ...


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