updated 8/21/2006 10:16:24 AM ET 2006-08-21T14:16:24

Authorities were correct to assume nearly $125,000 they seized from a man’s car during a traffic stop may have been connected to narcotics trafficking, despite finding no drugs in the vehicle, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

The ruling from the three-judge panel overturned an earlier decision by U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Thalken in Nebraska in the case of Emiliano Gomez Gonzolez. A state trooper stopped Gonzolez for speeding on Interstate 80 on May 28, 2003.

Gonzolez was driving a car that he told officers had been rented by a man named “Luis.” Gonzolez also said he had never been arrested and that he was not carrying drugs, guns or large amounts of money.

After Gonzolez consented, the car was searched and $124,700 in cash was found in a cooler in the back seat. Authorities also learned that Gonzolez had once been arrested for driving while intoxicated and that the person registered as having rented the car was not named “Luis.”

A drug dog later detected the scent of narcotics on the money and seat where the money was found.

Gonzolez testified that he lied about having the money because he believed that carrying large sums of money might be illegal. He said he secreted it inside the cooler because he feared it could be stolen while he was on the road.

He planned on using the money to buy a refrigerated truck in Chicago, Gonzolez said, but after arriving there by airplane from California he learned the truck had been sold. He decided to rent a car and drive back to California but needed someone else to rent the car because he had no credit card, he said.

Gonzolez also said he didn’t tell officers about his previous arrest because he didn’t think driving while intoxicated was a crime.

‘Substantial connection’
A federal judge in Nebraska said the evidence was not strong enough to link the money to drug trafficking, but the 8th Circuit Court on Thursday disagreed.

“We believe that the evidence as a whole demonstrates ... that there was a substantial connection between the currency and a drug trafficking offense,” the court wrote. “We have adopted the commonsense view that bundling and concealment of large amounts of currency, combined with other suspicious circumstances, supports a connection between money and drug trafficking.”

In dissent, Judge Donald Lay said the evidence provided was not enough to conclude the money was used in drug trafficking.

“At most, the evidence presented suggests the money seized may have been involved in some illegal activity—activity that is incapable of being ascertained on the record before us,” Lay wrote.

“Finally, the mere fact that the canine alerted officers to the presence of drug residue in a rental car, no doubt driven by dozens, perhaps scores, of patrons during the course of a given year, coupled with the fact that the alert came from the same location where the currency was discovered, does little to connect the money to a controlled substance offense.”

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