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Blackwell v. State ex rel. Snyder

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

June 1, 2018

Marcel A. Blackwell
v.
State of Alabama ex rel. Eric N. Snyder

          Appeal from Cleburne Circuit Court (CV-16-900021)

          PER CURIAM.

         This appeal arises from an in rem forfeiture action brought in the Cleburne Circuit Court by the State of Alabama on the relation of Eric N. Snyder, an assistant district attorney for Cleburne County. The complaint alleged, in pertinent part, that on April 11, 2016, a City of Heflin municipal police officer had issued a "traffic citation warning" to Marcel A. Blackwell ("the claimant") and had confiscated $13, 325.30 in United States currency incident to arresting the claimant on a charge of second-degree marijuana possession; according to the complaint, the currency was subject to forfeiture under Ala. Code 1975, § 20-2-93, because, it was alleged, the currency had been "used or was intended to be used to facilitate a violation of the laws of this State concerning controlled substances" and "was being used or intended to be used by the owner to facilitate the sale, receipt or possession of a controlled substance, in violation of the laws of this State concerning controlled substances." The currency was named as a defendant, as was the claimant.

         The claimant initially filed a pro se handwritten answer generally denying the allegations of the complaint; subsequently, counsel appeared for the claimant and filed an amended answer that raised no other defenses. The trial court then held an ore tenus proceeding at which the police officer, the claimant, and the claimant's wife testified and evidentiary exhibits were received. At the close of the State's evidence, the claimant orally moved for the entry of a judgment on partial findings (see Rule 52(c), Ala. R. Civ. P.);[1] that motion was denied. The trial court entered a judgment awarding the State $13, 020 based upon a determination that that portion of the "currency was furnished, or intended to be furnished, by [the claimant] in exchange for a controlled substance, or was used or intended to be used to facilitate a violation of the laws of this State concerning controlled substances"; $305.30 of the currency was awarded to the claimant. The claimant filed a postjudgment motion on May 3, 2017, seeking relief under Rule 59, Ala. R. Civ. P., and also seeking to renew his dispositive motion that he had made at trial;[2] that motion was not granted or denied by the trial court on or before August 1, 2017, and, therefore, that motion was denied pursuant to Rule 59.1, Ala. R. Civ. P., as of that date.[3]

         The claimant raises two issues in his appeal, although, in essence, they resolve to a single issue: whether the trial court erred in failing to enter a judgment in the claimant's favor because, he says, the State failed to prove a connection between the $13, 020 and a "specific violation" of Alabama's controlled-substances laws. That one issue is directed to the trial court's denial of the claimant's dispositive motion at trial, and the other is directed at the judgment eventually entered, which is of no import because the standard of review is the same: in either instance, "findings on disputed facts are presumed correct, and the trial court's judgment based on those findings will not be reversed unless the judgment is palpably erroneous or manifestly unjust." Lawson v. Harris Culinary Enters., LLC, 83 So.3d 483, 491 (Ala. 2011). That principle of review applies specifically to civil-forfeiture judgments:

"A trial court's judgment in a forfeiture action is presumed to be correct and will be reversed only if it is contrary to the great weight of the evidence. 'In other words, a trial court's judgment based on ore tenus evidence will not be reversed absent a showing that it amounts to an abuse of discretion.'"

Hildreth v. State, 51 So.3d 344, 349 (Ala. Civ. App. 2010) (citations omitted; quoting Atkins v. State, 16 So.3d 792, 795 (Ala. Civ. App. 2009)). "The ore tenus rule does not, however, extend to cloak a trial judge's conclusions of law or incorrect application of law to the facts with a presumption of correctness." $3, 011 in United States Currency v. State, 845 So.2d 810, 814 (Ala. Civ. App. 2002).

         The record in this action indicates that the claimant and his wife are residents of California; the claimant has a criminal record that includes, among other convictions, a 2005 federal conviction, which led to imprisonment, arising from an attempt to sell a narcotic substance. At trial, the claimant testified that he is an unlicensed automobile broker who does business under the name "Deals on Wheels, " earning approximately $25, 000 annually, and that he occasionally made money by preparing food for resale. The claimant and his wife testified that the wife had taken $4, 500 from a retirement account and had given that money to the claimant to obtain a replacement car for her because her previous car had suffered an engine failure.

         According to the claimant, the aunt of one of his longtime friends, Steve Latha, died in Louisiana, and the claimant testified that he traveled by air to Atlanta, Georgia, to visit with Steve and to assist in fundraising for the planned funeral for that aunt. The claimant testified that he brought on that trip with him the $4, 500 supplied by his wife and that, while in Atlanta, he had contacted another friend in Louisiana who had informed him of the possibility of acquiring a 2004 model Honda Accord automobile there; the claimant testified that he had not acquired a return air ticket to California because he had planned to drive back to California using the automobile he was seeking to acquire.

         The claimant testified that, after arriving in Atlanta, he and Latha and two female companions had spent a "couple of days ... hanging out, going to clubs, [and] partying"; the claimant also testified that he and others had raised approximately $10, 000 in funeral funds from washing automobiles and preparing meals in Atlanta and from a bake sale in California conducted by the claimant and his wife. According to the claimant's testimony, Latha had provided him a motor vehicle to use during his trip and had accumulated all of the currency representing the wife's car-purchase funds and the funeral funds and placed it in a single heat-sealed "Foodsaver" plastic bag on a bed at the home of one of Latha's paramours.

         The police officer testified at trial that, on April 11, 2016, he had been stationed on Interstate 20 near mile marker 205 when he observed a red Nissan Versa automobile traveling westbound past his location "at a high rate of speed in the dark" in rainy conditions. After the police officer began following that automobile in his own patrol car, he observed that the Nissan failed to stay in its lane, and he performed a traffic stop near mile marker 199. Upon approaching the driver of the vehicle, who was the claimant, the police officer received the claimant's California driver's license and heard the claimant state that he was on his way from Atlanta to Louisiana. As the police officer stood beside the Nissan, he observed marijuana "stems and debris" in the center console near the emergency brake. The police officer asked the claimant to step out of the vehicle, and, when the claimant did so, the police officer observed a noticeable bulge and a piece of plastic inside the claimant's clothes near his pants line. According to the police officer, the claimant stated that the plastic contained $10, 000 that was to be used to obtain a "vehicle hull" of which he had been made aware by a friend of his, but the claimant was unable to answer specifically from whom or from where he was going to obtain it. The police officer then placed the claimant under arrest and returned the heat-sealed currency bag to the front-passenger seat of the vehicle, where the police officer's service dog gave a positive "passive stop stare" on the passenger-side door of the Nissan. A warning citation describing the traffic offense prompting the police officer's stop bears the local (Central) time of 9:12 p.m.

         The police officer also obtained a number of papers from the Nissan that were introduced into evidence, including:

1. A rental agreement for a red Nissan Versa automobile issued on March 2, 2016, to "Lakeidre Randle" by an affiliate of Enterprise Holdings, Inc., based in Monroe, Louisiana, showing a rental return date of March 7, 2016, and indicating that no other drivers were permitted;
2. Receipts dated March 7, 2016, from the West End U.S. Postal Service branch in Atlanta, Georgia, evidencing the purchase by Steve Latha of Monroe, Louisiana, of two $1, 000 money orders and of Priority Mail Express postage for a 2-pound, 8-ounce parcel ...

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