Texas town settles suit with 64-year-old cash seizure victim after revealing that 89% of its revenues came from fines and forfeitures.

The City of Estelline, TX has agreed to pay a 64-year-old woman, Laura Dutton, $77,500 in exchange for dropping her lawsuit against the small municipality. Among the allegations in Ms. Dutton's suit were claims of wrongful arrest, prolonged detention, and unlawful seizure.

In November of 2012, then Estelline Police Officer Jayson Fry stopped Ms. Dutton and her pickup truck, alleging that Dutton was travelling 11 MPH above the posted speed limit. In addition to citing Ms. Dutton for speeding, Officer Fry asked permission to search Dutton's truck. When Ms. Dutton refused permission, Officer Fry contacted Chris Jolly, the Police Chief of nearby Memphis, TX.

Police Chief Jolly showed up with a K9 unit.

The K9 unit then, according to Officer Fry, alerted to Ms. Dutton's truck. The officers subsequently searched Ms. Dutton's truck and found either $29,600 or $31,000 in cash, still bundled in bank currency wrapping. [If $31,000, which sounds more credible, given the other established facts, $1,400 of the seized currency appears to have 'disappeared' after Officer Fry seized it.]

Included in Officer Fry's report was the familiar cataloging of unverifiable elements used to support a finding of probable cause in currency forfeitures. Ms. Dutton, according to Officer Fry, was "nervous, made furtive movements, showed signs of deception and gave evasive answers when he questioned her" (Russell Anglin, Due Diligence, or 'policing for Profit'?: Woman Decries Seizure of Nearly $30K Cash, Amarillo Globe News, Jan. 21, 2013). Fry also claimed to have detected a “'strong odor of unknown origin' that he thought to be marijuana coming from inside Dutton’s Ford F-150 pickup" and from the currency (Id.).

Officer Fry then arrested Ms. Dutton and seized her currency, despite Ms. Dutton's objections that she had no involvement with drugs, and despite her claims that the currency was obtained from a recent real estate transaction. 

Ms. Dutton was held overnight, in the local jail, before bonding out.

To the credit of the local District Attorney's office, they refused to prosecute the case, agreed to drop the speeding ticket, and agreed to return Ms. Dutton's seized cash (or at least $29,600 of it), after verifying Ms. Dutton's story.

Ms. Dutton, understandably aggrieved, and probably still smarting from the missing $1,400, sued the City of Estelline, TX.

The City of Estilline settled after revealing (1) that it could not (or would not) produce record of Dutton's roadside interrogation; (2) that the City "had no written drug dog policy, no written arrest policy and no established forfeiture policy"; (3) that the City "maintained no written records of past searches or seizures"; and (4) that "traffic fines and forfeitures made up more than 89 percent of its gross revenues in fiscal year 2012" (Jim McBride, Estelline 'speed Trap' Settles Missing Cash Suit, Amarillo Globe News, July 21, 2014).

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