The Miami-Dade Police Department must return nearly $20,000 in cash to a woman after prosecutors admitted that officers illegally searched her car and seized several lawfully owned guns.
The Miami Herald reports that the department will also pay $3,000 in legal fees to Lizmixell Batista, a dancer at the local Cheetah Gentleman's Club, and her husband, Ras Cates. The case is textbook example of how asset forfeiture laws and the drug war incentivize constitutional violations and bad police work.
Batista and Cates were arrested following a traffic stop in May. Police allegedly smelled marijuana in their car, and a subsequent search turned up six guns, several large bottles of what cops suspected to be codeine cough syrup, and nearly $20,000 in cash in Batista's purse.
At the time, police touted it as a major bust. CBS Miami ran an "exclusive" story about the "arsenal of weapons, cash and illegal drugs":
"It's amazing how something as simple as a traffic stop can lead us to crack a lot of cases," said Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta. "A lot of serial killers are behind bars because of traffic stops. These traffic stops lead to so many things in the criminal world and they are never routine. We warn our officers that there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop. You never know what you are going to get."
Just like life, and boxes of chocolate. But for police, what looked like a delicious nougat of a drug bust turned out to be the coconut cream of disappointment.
Prosecutors dropped the charges against Batista and Cates when body-cam footage showed police didn't have permission to search the couple's trunk. The guns were all legally owned, Cates had a concealed carry license, and no testing had been done on the suspected codeine or hash oil to determine if they were illicit drugs.
"What is most disturbing is that immediately following the arrest, the department went on TV and engaged in incendiary speculation without knowing the facts or even acknowledging the rampant violations of my clients' constitutional rights," defense attorney Jude Faccidomo tells the Herald.
But there was still that sweet, sweet cash. Under civil asset forfeiture laws, the department could still claim it even though there were no longer any criminal charges against Batista.
Batista had explained to officers why, given her profession, she would be carrying large amounts of cash, but the department initiated a forfeiture case against the money anyway. The Herald reports:
The Miami-Dade police department's legal bureau, suspecting it was dope money, asked a civil-court judge to allow the department to keep the $19,934 seized in the car. The department said a Miami-Dade police dog, Roxie, alerted that the cash had been "in close proximity" to large amounts of narcotics.
But at the hearing, a fellow stripper named Haley Heath testified that her friend, Batista, earned "significant cash tips" at the Cheetah club.
"I felt that the glitter on the seized cash was compelling evidence, but apparently the police department disagreed," said defense lawyer Jude Faccidomo.
The judge agreed with Faccidomo and ordered the cash to be returned.