A Charlotte man forced to forfeit $400 to the government wants his money back. And he has taken his plea to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in hopes of reclaiming the cash.
Tomorrow the court is scheduled to consider the case of Thomas Royster, who pleaded guilty to a marijuana charge stemming from 2011. And though the financial stakes aren’t particularly high for Royster, his case has implications for future scenarios in which larger sums of cash are found during drug investigations.
Three years ago, Royster pulled into a Charlotte motel parking lot with expired tags on his car. Police investigated and found weed and a digital scale hidden inside the dashboard. When they searched Royster's person, they discovered and seized $400.
Royster was originally charged with possession with intent to sell or delver. But a year later he accepted a plea deal to a reduced charge of simple possession, for which the punishment was probation. Nevertheless, Royster's trial judge ordered the forfeiture of Royster's $400, which the police ostensibly seized because they believed it was drug money.
Royster appealed the judge’s decision, arguing that there was no evidence linking the weed to the cash.
NC Statute § 90-112(a)(2) states that all money acquired or used “in selling, purchasing, manufacturing, compounding, processing, delivering, importing, or exporting” a controlled substance shall be subject to forfeiture. Forfeited drug money must be deposited into the school fund of the county in which it was seized.
The Royster case, however, begs the question: what if more than $400 was found on Royster’s person? What if it were $1,000? What it if it were $5,000?
North Carolina case law suggests that monetary value is irrelevant when cash is discovered in close proximity to drugs. In State v. Teasley
, a Court of Appeals case from 1986, the judges held that a trial judge erred when he ordered the forfeiture of $5,900 discovered alongside cocaine in a barn after a police standoff with the barn’s owner, because there was no direct link between them.
The State Attorney General, however, rejects Royster’s “close proximity” argument, arguing that there are other ways to prove a link between drugs and money found on a suspect's person. One example, State's lawyers contend, is the presence of a digital scale alongside drugs, as is in the case of Royster. The presence of the scale shows Roytster's intent to manufacture drugs, the State's lawyers argue, and should be considered by a judge in forfeiture dealings, even if Royster pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of simple possession.
A ruling by the Court of Appeals is expected in upcoming months.