James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

$200K in a suitcase: the Sunday column, and the court record

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: June 2, 2014 - 9:55 AM

While reporting on the changing legal landscape of police forfeitures in Minnesota, I came upon the strange case of the $200,020 cash in the silver attaché case (linked here, and below). Some readers wanted more information on the case, so I'm also embedding the civil forfeiture case filed in federal court. I will keep exploring this issue in the weeks ahead, when the Minnesota State Auditor is expected to release data on forfeitures by state and local law enforcement in 2013. 

Rahim Forfeiture

Here's the column:

The strange journey of the $200 grand in the silver attaché case began when drug investigators raided a Minneapolis tobacco shop.

Since that November 2012 day, all charges have been dismissed against the store’s clerk, Mokrane Rahim, and a Hennepin County district judge ordered the return of his seized property. But a year later, U.S. marshals are still baby-sitting the biggest haul from the investigation: $200,020 in cash, discovered by police in Rahim’s New Brighton bedroom.

After the case failed in state court, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger filed a lawsuit against the money so it could be forfeited under federal law.

“It is possible to have a civil case, a forfeiture action, without a criminal case attached to it,” said Tasha Terry, a spokeswoman for Luger. “As far as the specifics on this case, we are moving forward with this forfeiture.” Terry would not say anything else.

In fact, no one who knows about this case wants to say much about it. I could not reach Rahim, and his lawyer declined to comment.

But records filed in state and federal court tell a story of how far law enforcement can go to keep what it considers ill-gotten treasure. Even though the state of Minnesota raised the bar by requiring a criminal conviction or admission of guilt for forfeitures, the feds can still go after property with no criminal charges at all.

The case started with a tip to Minneapolis police in March 2012. Someone was selling synthetic marijuana out of 46th & Nicollet Tobacco, a storefront shop in a little strip mall. In November of that year, an undercover officer made four buys of 420! Cubed, otherwise known as K2 or Spice. They’re brand names for XLR11, one of the growing assortment of noxious products concocted by chemists trying to keep a step ahead of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

At the time, however, XLR11 wasn’t explicitly listed as an illegal narcotic by the DEA. More on that later.

With warrants in hand, Minneapolis police and DEA agents moved in. They arrested Rahim at the store, seized the suspected drugs and opened a microwave oven to find $8,105 in uncooked cash. At Rahim’s condo in New Brighton, they seized at least 72 pounds of a “green, leafy substance,” a Mercedes-Benz and, from the bedroom, the silver case with the big money. By comparison, the average forfeiture that year brought in $1,263, and the biggest one completed in 2012 netted $78,845, according to the state auditor.

Rahim bonded out of jail. Five months went by. On May 9, defense lawyer Ryan Garry argued in court that the state crime lab had so far failed to show the leafy green substance was illegal. Judge Richard Scherer accepted the argument, tossed the charges and ordered Rahim’s property returned, ruling there was “no legal basis to continue to hold such property.”

The government wouldn’t give up that easily. The money moved into federal custody. Eleven months later, in April 2014, the federal civil case was filed that called for “the arrest and seizure of the Defendant Currency.” The lawsuit noted that XLR11 was officially named a DEA controlled substance on May 16, 2013.

That was nearly six months after Rahim’s arrest, and a week after the dropped charges. But the DEA noted that its forfeiture action was allowed, because federal law classifies “analogues” of controlled substances as equally illegal. The money in the attaché case was the “proceeds of, or is traceable to proceeds of, the sale of controlled substance analogues, was used or intended to be used to purchase such substances, or both.”

If the federal government succeeds in acquiring the money through forfeiture, much of it will probably go back to the Minneapolis police through a system called “equitable sharing.”

From April 15 through May 14, public notice about the $200,020 in seized currency was posted on the forfeiture.gov website. Anyone who thinks that money is theirs must file a claim with the court by the middle of June.

As of Friday, no one had.

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