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Arizona court rules trucker can contest police seizing his money at Sky Harbor

Police suspected Jerry Johnson was involved in criminal activity, resulting in the seizure of his property. But the courts say his due process rights were violated.

PHOENIX — A North Carolina man who had $39,500 in cash seized by police at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport has been given the chance to contest the forfeiture in court. 

Jerry Johnson had traveled to Phoenix in August 2020 with the intention of paying cash on a truck for his business. But Phoenix police flagged Johnson as a "probable drug courier" and confronted him at the airport before he had a chance to get to the auction, court records show.

On suspicion Johnson's cash was tied to illicit activity, police took possession of the money after Johnson signed a disclaimer of ownership. 

Police cited Johnson's criminal history, an odor of "marijuana" emanating from the cash, and the fact Johnson didn't know the exact amount of cash in his bag as reasons to seize his money, court records show.

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Despite never charging Johnson with a crime, authorities proceeded to seek ownership of the money by filing paperwork in court. Johnson objected to the forfeiture and asked for a hearing in Superior Court. 

The judge ruled in favor of the state, finding Johnson failed to prove he owned the $39,500.  

Earlier this week, the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed that judge's findings and remanded the case back to Maricopa County Superior Court for further proceedings.

The appellate court ruled the lower court mistakenly placed Johnson with the burden of proving his cash wasn't connected to a crime. 

"The burden of proving that property is connected to criminal activity and thus subject to forfeiture is a burden placed squarely on the state," the court ruling states. "By shifting this burden to Johnson, the court violated due process."

The appellate judges additionally faulted the state for not introducing any evidence demonstrating someone other than Johnson owned the money.

State officials have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the recent ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Institute of Justice, the law firm representing Johnson, said they're glad he will have his day in court to contest the "unjust" forfeiture of his money. 

Less than a year after Johnson's money was seized, the Arizona Legislature revised the state's laws to strengthen protections for property owners facing civil forfeiture.

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