The Town of Mooresville and the Mooresville Police Department were held in contempt of court on Tuesday after failing to return nearly $17,000 after seizing the money during an investigation.
Judge Christine Underwood held up the previous court ruling that the $16,761 taken from Jermaine Sanders' car needed to be returned, and that the police department "willfully did not comply" with that order, putting it and Mooresville's government in contempt.
"Give this man his money," Underwood said during the hearing.
Underwood said she is giving Mooresville seven business days to return the money. She noted she wouldn't be afraid to jail the board of commissioners, the chief of police, or anyone else who would be considered responsible for returning the money to Sanders, but that would be something used as a last resort if the town did not comply.
For Sanders and his attorney, Ashley Cannon, it was a decisive victory.
"The Mooresville Police Department is blatantly violating the rule of law, blatantly making a mockery of the court, and essentially stealing my client's money," Cannon said after the hearing. "She isn't afraid to lock up whoever she has to lock up, whether it is the city council, the town manager or if it is the chief of police; they need to give his money back to him."
The Town of Mooresville said it is still waiting for the official written order from the judge and it is exploring all options, including appeal.
Court upholds previous orders
In this case, the money was found on Nov. 16 when the Mooresville Police Department discovered it in a vehicle Cannon said Sanders wasn't in or hadn't given consent to search. Police reportedly found less than a half-ounce of marijuana in the car, leading to misdemeanor charges that will be brought to court at a later date.
The cash police found wasn't tied to any criminal charges, which led to the court ordering the money to be returned to Sanders.
On Nov. 24, District Judge Deborah Brown rejected Mooresville's claim that because it had sent the money to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection — the day before the hearing — that the money wasn't in Mooresville's jurisdiction anymore and that they weren't responsible for returning it. Mooresville Detective Shawn Elliott had previously referred Cannon to inquire with the United States' Attorney's Office or the Department of Homeland Security about returning the money found in the investigation.
However, Brown ruled that the Mooresville Police Department must return the money to Sanders. During Tuesday's hearing, Underwood noted the timing, Nov. 23, of when Mooresville had a cashier's check made payable to US Customs and Border Protection. She said Mooresville knew they faced legal action the next day regarding the check. She also noted the "fungible" nature of the cash, as the city didn't have to return the exact same cash they had seized, but they needed to return the amount of money they owed to Sanders.
Money must be returned
On Tuesday, Underwood said because that court order wasn't overturned (and Mooresville's attorney Patrick Flanagan wasn't arguing otherwise) and that any claims of government immunity weren't valid in this case as Flanagan had argued before the judge, that the court order to return Sanders money was valid. Underwood said there was no evidence presented that the police department or town of Mooresville didn't have any financial reasons not to comply.
Underwood said Mooresville was ordered to purge itself of the contempt by returning the money within seven business days once they receive the order officially from the court.
"I don't have a problem with locking up whoever is responsible for returning the money to Mr. Sanders," Underwood said.
Underwood said that jailing someone immediately for contempt isn't something she ever is in a rush to do when holding someone in contempt, but that it is the punishment that the court can use. She said she prefers to give parties time to address the issue instead of incarcerating them.
Cannon said when local agencies turn money over to the federal government in such cases before a defendant is found guilty or any criminal charges are settled, they are stealing people's money and the policy should be reviewed.
"We have lots of cases where police departments seize the money of individuals without evidence that that money is related to criminal activity."
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