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Members of the Statewide Narcotics Task Force found heroin, cocaine and a $26,000 bounty when they searched 22 Alger St. in New London last summer.
Someone had removed a tile and tucked 13 envelopes, each containing $2,000 in cash, into the ceiling of the attic.
At a hearing last week in New London Superior Court, a judge had to decide whether the cash belonged to John Medina, the six-time convicted drug dealer who was the target of the police investigation, or to his mother, Maria Higgins, who claimed the envelopes contained her life savings.
In the end, the money went to the state, which for more than two decades has been seizing cash and other assets from drug dealers and dividing the bounty among local and state agencies. The law allows the state to seize proceeds derived directly from any sale of a controlled substance.
"Statewide, since the law went into effect in 1989, we're probably looking at in excess of 28,000 cases," said Christopher Malany, supervising assistant state's attorney in the Division of Criminal Justice's Asset Forfeiture Bureau. Malany estimated that $32 million in cash had been seized since the program began.
Under the law, 70 percent of the take goes to the police department. The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services gets 20 percent for drug treatment and education programs. And 10 percent goes to the Division of Criminal Justice, which administers the drug asset forfeiture program.
Offenders frequently waive their claims to money and other assets while their court cases are pending. Medina did so in the New London case. He pleaded guilty to possession of narcotics with intent to sell and was sentenced Jan. 31 to six years in prison. His mother then came forward to claim the money and a 1995 Honda Accord that was registered to her but that police said Medina had driven during drug transactions.
Judge Patrick J. Clifford conducted an asset forfeiture hearing. Senior Assistant State's Attorney Paul J. Narducci, who had prosecuted the case, called witnesses in an effort to persuade the judge, "by clear and convincing evidence," that the cash and the car were the fruits of Medina's crime.
Three police officers who worked the case testified, including one who said that Medina, told of the cash discovery on the day of the raid, did not say the money belonged to his mother.
Clifford awarded the money to the state but ordered that the car be returned to Higgins. He also ordered that the 190 bags of heroin and 12 grams of cocaine found in the house be destroyed.
Higgins said she is considering an appeal. "I can't deny what he's done, because he did it," she said of her 33-year-old son. "But why should I pay the price? And it's a high, high price."
Higgins said she has worked two jobs for years and that she didn't use a bank for her savings because nine years ago, she had a problem with the Internal Revenue Service, which put a lien on her bank deposits.
"That terrifies me," Higgins said. "I trust my home. I've never had a problem."
Nobody ever went into the attic, Higgins said, so she stored the cash there. The police had found a safe at the house that contained only old documents.
At the asset forfeiture hearing, the state produced Higgins' tax returns and employment information in an effort to demonstrate to the judge that she could not have saved that much cash. The prosecutor also introduced 27 photographs from the raid, including one that showed the white envelopes packed with cash.
The average amount of cash seized from a drug dealer is about $450, according to Malany, who added that he once saw a case involving $486,000. The offenders are more successful in claiming smaller amounts of money.
"If you're dealing with seizures in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, those are easy cases," Malany said. "Virtually anyone can come up with some explanation for where they came up with $450."
Many drug dealers keep their cash in separate, untraceable locations, but Malany said that if the police find evidence, such as a safe deposit key, they will pursue a seizure.
New London defense attorney Anthony R. Basilica, whose client caseload often involves those accused of drug crimes, said the burden is on defense attorneys to produce a clear trail of evidence that seized assets are not drug-related. As a sole practitioner, he said he is at a disadvantage because he is pitted against the state and its prosecutors and inspectors, and its access to the state crime lab, the FBI, police departments, search warrants and wire taps.
"In normal circumstances, what you do is, you kind of use (seized assets) as a little bit of a chip in the game to get a little off the sentence," Basilica said. "You don't get a lot of play with it because they tell you, we're keeping the money anyway."
Basilica said he did win one case in which a client had kept $7,500 in cash from the sale of a house. He was able to produce the sale documents and a copy of a certified check from the bank that showed the sale amount minus the $7,500.
When the state seizes a car with an outstanding loan, they give the lender the option of taking it back or reselling it to the offender, according to Malany. Other cars are auctioned or kept by the police.
One of the most memorable seizures in recent local history occurred in 2009, when Norwich and New London police each obtained Lexuses from a drug dealer. The New London police outfitted the car with decals saying, "This vehicle was seized from a drug dealer" and used it to teach young people a lesson.
Drug money deposited into the state's Drug Asset Forfeiture Revolving Fund, by fiscal year
Where does the money go?
70 percent: seizing police department
20 percent: Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services for drug treatment and education programs
10 percent: Division of Criminal Justice, which administers the asset forfeiture program
Source: Division of Criminal Justice