Bucks County, Pa. D.A. sued over alleged illegal police seizure of bail money

Jon Campisi Oct. 20, 2011, 2:35pm

A Philadelphia woman who claims suburban police officers followed her to the bank and seized bail money that was to be used to spring her son and daughter-in-law from jail is suing the Bucks County, Pa. district attorney in federal court.

Chadds Ford, Pa. attorney Jeremy H.G. Ibrahim filed the civil claim Oct. 18 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on behalf of Juanita Lewis, who claims members of the Bensalem Police Department, at the behest of a suburban district judge, followed her to the bank Sept. 23, 2008, and, after executing a vehicle stop on her way back from the bank, seized $10,000 in cash that was to be used as bail money for her son and daughter-in-law, the lawsuit states.

The complaint, which names Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler as the defendant, states that Lewis learned of her son and daughter-in-law’s arrest and incarceration on Sept. 23, 2008, and was advised that bail had been set at 10 percent of $75,000 for her son, and 10 percent of $25,000 for her daughter-in-law.

The lawsuit does not elaborate on the criminal charges against the two.

The complaint states that Lewis was able to secure the $10,000 from family and friends, and that she subsequently headed down to the Magisterial District Court presided over by District Judge Leonard J. Brown.

Upon attempting to pay bail at the clerk’s counter, the suit claims, Brown, who was not in his robes at the time, advised Lewis that “dogs would sniff the cash and if the dogs alerted that the plaintiff would be arrested.”

Brown then inquired as to the source of the cash, the suit states, but Lewis declined to answer, and instead left the district court.

Lewis then headed to the bank in an attempt to change the cash from small bills to larger ones, the suit states. Unbeknownst to Lewis, Brown had alerted Bensalem Police, instructing them to follow and conduct surveillance on Lewis.

After leaving the bank, Lewis, who was in her car, was stopped by Bensalem officers, who seized her purse and the $10,000 that was inside it, the suit claims.

Although Lewis alleges the cops searched her purse without her consent, Lewis said the officers told her that the currency was being seized for “investigation and as evidence,” the lawsuit claims.

“Plaintiff was not then nor ever charged nor arrested,” the suit states. “The $10,000 was placed on a property receipt and never returned to the plaintiff.”

In February of this year, Lewis filed a civil rights action against the Bensalem Township Police Department seeking the return of her money, the complaint states. It was then that she found out the money had been turned over to the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office, where it allegedly remains in the defendant’s forfeiture account.

“The defendant was required by Pennsylvania state law to institute proceedings for the issuance of process for the seizure of the plaintiff’s property inasmuch as it was a seizure without process,” the lawsuit states. “Defendant harbors the belief that a forfeiture petition … filed in December of 2008 accounts for the required process.”

A look at the petition, however, shows that the petition was related to seizures occurring on Sept. 22, 2008, and does not list the $10,000 seized on Sept. 23, the suit claims.

“The action for forfeiture was subject to a two year statute of limitations,” the suit states. “This time period has lapsed.”

In August of this year, the suit states, Lewis notified the defendant, through letters, emails and numerous phone calls, that she believed her property was being held unlawfully. She stressed that she was not a criminal suspect at the time of the seizure and was never charged with any wrongdoing.

“The defendant alone has custody of the plaintiff’s property,” the lawsuit states. “Such retention is unreasonable, and constitutes an ongoing seizure and violation of plaintiff’s constitutional rights.”

“As a direct and proximate result of the defendants actions,” the suit continues, “plaintiff suffers serious and permanent trauma including distrust of law enforcement and the judicial process.”

Lewis has also suffered pain, financial loss and emotional distress, the suit claims.

The lawsuit contains counts of unreasonable search and seizure, failure to train and supervise, and pendent state claims.

Lewis seeks compensatory damages in excess of $100,000, punitive damages in excess of $100,000, interest, attorney’s fees and other costs related to the suit.

A jury trial is being demanded.

The federal case number is 2:11-cv-06492-JP.

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