Archive for Sunday, November 5, 2000

Finders keepers, judge rules in drug car case

November 5, 2000

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— A 77-year-old woman not the government can keep $82,000 found in her car's gas tank.

A federal judge ruled this week that Helen Chappell of Kansas City is the rightful owner of the cash, which federal agents seized last year after a mechanic found it in her 1995 Volkswagen Golf.

"It's not often that a 77-year-old woman can beat one of the most powerful adversaries in the world," said Paul Katz, the attorney who sued the government for Chappell and her son to get the money back.

The car had been part of a drug investigation before Helen and Jeffrey Chappell bought it "as is" at a federal government auction last year. But it quickly developed a fuel problem, and a mechanic found the cash floating in bundles in the tank.

An agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seized the money but told the Chappells that it should be returned to them. But a short time later the Chappells received notice that the federal government planned to forfeit the money, which meant it would keep the cash.

U.S. Attorney Stephen Hill's office argued in the case that the federal government owned the cash before it was found, giving it superior rights to the money, and also that the money was profits from illegal drug trafficking, so it belongs to the government.

In this week's ruling, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey said the government could have kept the money if it had found the cash before selling the car. And it should have, she said.

The gas gauge was malfunctioning, she said, always reading empty but still the government did not check the tank.

The Chappells were ecstatic Friday but at the same time realized the federal government had 10 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling.

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