Man wants money back from Lamar County traffic stop

Staff reportSeptember 18, 2013 

A man is appealing the state’s seizure of more than $63,000 from his car during a Lamar County traffic stop in which no drugs were found and from which no criminal charges have been filed.

He argues that under state law, he earned the funds legally, and they were not subject to forfeiture.

The case is scheduled for argument Monday before the Georgia Supreme Court.

On June 7, 2011, Lamar County sheriff’s deputy Chris Webster noticed a car with excessively tinted windows and initiated a traffic stop, according to a Supreme Court summary of the case. Using a window tint meter, the officer determined that the tint was 12 percent in violation of Georgia law.

Webster asked the driver, Jeffrey Mordica, for his license and insurance information and asked where he was going. Mordica responded that he was on his way from Tallahassee to buy a restaurant in Atlanta, but he could not remember the name of the restaurant. He later changed details of that story and exhibited an “unusual level of nervousness.”

Mordica’s license was valid, but Webster felt Mordica “was engaged in some type of criminal activity” and that “something wasn’t right.” When the deputy asked if Mordica has any contraband or large amounts of money, he said no.

Webster soon found $63,339 in cash in the car, divided into $1,000 bundles secured with rubber bands, as well as three cellphones. Webster ran a background check and found that Mordica had a criminal history with several drug convictions and had been in prison 12 of the past 25 years.

No criminal charges were filed against Mordica, but the state filed a forfeiture complaint against the $63,339. Mordica responded that the money had been derived from lawful means, including through his partial ownership in three businesses.

After a hearing, the trial court granted the forfeiture petition. Mordica appealed, but the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s judgment.

Mordica’s attorney argues in briefs that the Court of Appeals erred because seizure of the funds was impermissible in a case in which “no criminal charges were filed, no drugs were found, and the trial court’s decision rested upon consideration of the individual’s prior drug convictions.”

The state argues that both courts correctly ruled that the money was properly seized. The request to search the car and the use of a drug dog were justified by Webster’s reasonable suspicion, which was based on the combination of a strong odor of air freshener, Mordica’s nervousness and his explanation that he was traveling to Atlanta to buy a restaurant without knowing the restaurant’s name.

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