Pa. vs. $500K tied to no-conviction drug bust: Lancaster County trial highlights forfeiture issues | Local News

A Lancaster County judge will begin hearing arguments Tuesday to determine whether state prosecutors can keep two houses, at least $162,000 in cash, five cars and thousands of dollars in car parts, tools and gift cards.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office contends the cash is drug money. As for the property, the state says drug money paid for it; therefore, all of it is subject to civil forfeiture – the process by which the government seizes property it suspects is tied to illegal activity.

Forfeiture proceeds are used to fund law enforcement, and the process is subject to abuse, in part because authorities don’t need a criminal conviction to proceed.

Taken together, the half-million or so dollars at stake makes this case among the largest in county history, based on a review of LNP | LancasterOnline archives and court records. Far more typical are cases involving significantly smaller amounts, generally in the hundreds or low thousands of dollars. 

‘Stash house’ bust

The property at issue in the case before Judge Leonard Brown was seized nearly six years ago by the Pennsylvania State Police after they searched a suspected West Lampeter Township marijuana “stash house.” 

The “house” was an apartment leased to a man named Joshua Barrows, who, according to court records related to the trial, told his landlord he’d recently moved to Lancaster from California and was looking for work.

The Pennsylvania State Police searched the apartment based on information from the landlord and another tenant. Police found more than 20 pounds of marijuana, steroids and some $135,294 cash.

But a judge later determined that Barrows’ apartment was illegally searched. That meant prosecutors couldn’t use evidence gained from it, so Barrows’ criminal charges were dismissed.

Even so, the Attorney General’s Office argues Judge Brown should be able to consider the suppressed evidence as it tries to make the case that the money and property is the result of drug dealing. 

That’s because the legal standards are different in civil and criminal cases. Because forfeiture is a civil proceeding, the government doesn’t need a criminal conviction to seize property it contends is the gains of illegal activities.

Still, the government needs to prove its case. And Barrows’ attorney maintains that because everything the government learned about Barrows and the subsequent property it seized stemmed from the illegal search, it can’t.

“It’s unfortunate that those people don’t like the Fourth Amendment,” Barrows’ attorney, Douglas Earl, said Thursday. “You just can’t go into people’s homes.” 

Part of the Bill of Rights, the amendment protects people against unreasonable search and seizure.

Forfeiture issues

Forfeiture proponents argue criminals shouldn’t benefit financially from their crimes. And they say forfeiture saves taxpayers’ money – again, because the money is ostensibly used for crime fighting.

Critics say forfeiture can lead to what’s called “policing for profit” and that people targeted don’t have the legal protections that they do in criminal cases. Questionable examples include vehicles seized in drug transactions when the owners weren’t present. 

Locally, now-Common Pleas Court Judge Craig Stedman was criticized in 2017 after LNP learned he had been using forfeiture assets to lease an SUV. And since June 2020, the Attorney General’s Office has been investigating the disappearance of $150,000 that Heather Adams, the current district attorney, said appears to have been stolen before she took office.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office said Friday it had nothing to report on the investigation.

Civil, not criminal, proceeding

While the government must prove a person guilty of a crime by the legal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, the burden of proof is less in civil forfeiture cases.

But that standard has become more stringent.

In 2017, Pennsylvania increased the government’s burden in forfeiture cases from a preponderance of evidence to clear and convincing evidence.

The burdens aren’t an exact science. A preponderance of evidence is sometimes defined as what would tip the figurative scales of justice ever so slightly to one side. Clear and convincing means the evidence is substantially more likely to be believed than not.

The shift is encouraging defense lawyers to fight asset seizures, according to University of Pennsylvania law professor and forfeiture expert Louis Rulli.

Having a judge decide the case rather than a jury is probably wise in cases such as Barrows, according to Rulli.

While some people believe it’s better to take a case before a jury, jurors “can be tough, especially if they see illegal activity,” Rulli said. “The judge, on the other hand, has to apply the law.”

State, not county, forfeiture case

Usually in Lancaster County, the district attorney’s office takes the lead on forfeiture cases, and the seized cash and assets are used to fund the county’s drug task force. But the Attorney General’s Office handles cases involving a state police investigation, which is what led to Barrows’ arrest.

The case traces to Feb. 15, 2016. That’s when Barrows’ landlord told Trooper Noel Velez that he’d gone into Barrows’ apartment because the unit above it had a leaking pipe. He saw marijuana and stacks of cash, a scene he described as “from in the movies,” according to court documents.

There were other odd things.

Barrows, 43, was hardly ever at the barely furnished apartment that was kept so cold, the landlord worried water pipes might freeze. And when Barrows did come, it was at odd times. 

Police decided to investigate further. Around 9 p.m. on Feb. 16, 2016, Ruger, a drug-sniffing dog, was brought to the apartment complex and led around Barrows’ unit. 

At the front and back doors, “Ruger alerted to the odor of controlled substances,” court documents said. Based on that, police obtained a sealed warrant to search inside.

When police searched the apartment the next day, they found about 27 pounds of marijuana, steroids, $135,294 in cash, bank records and 11 cell phones, according to court documents.

Police arrested Barrows two days later after watching him in an “apparent drug transaction” in Manor Shopping Center’s rear parking lot. After officers detained Barrow, they found he was carrying more than $8,544 in cash and three cell phones, according to court documents.

Earl, Barrows’ attorney, said police were making assumptions that the money was related to drug dealing.

Police also searched other properties associated with Barrows, including two Lancaster city houses: 1021 St. Joseph Street, which Barrows bought from his mother, Marcia Ringgold, for $45,000 in July 2015; and 20 Charles Road, which Ringgold bought for $249,900 in September 2015, according to county property records. 

The state wants both houses.

It also wants a 2015 Ford Focus, a 2001 Audi S8 Quattro, a 2004 Audi S4, a 2005 Audi A6 and a 2001 BMW 740, all of which were seized from properties associated with Barrows. The tools and parts include 36 boxes of wheels, a wheel balancing machine, two tool chests and a 500-piece Craftsman socket set.

The state also claims Barrows laundered nearly $1.14 million through more than two dozen accounts at 16 banks in five states between 2012 and 2016.

“It should be noted that all of these deposits and credits occurred at a time when Barrows had no known source of income. In fact, the Commonwealth has observed … Barrows has never had a legitimate source of income,” state attorneys wrote in forfeiture filings.

Because Barrows’ had previously refused to disclose how he earned money or bought the items in question, government attorneys argue he should not be able to now offer an explanation at trial. He is expected to testify.

Court filings by Barrows’ attorney don’t say what his source of income is and Earl declined comment, saying he avoids discussing cases outside of court.

Suppression, charges dismissed

Soon after Barrows was charged in the marijuana case, his defense attorneys moved to suppress evidence based on the apartment search on grounds that it violated the Fourth Amendment.

In March 2017, Judge Dennis Reinaker agreed, finding that the use of a drug dog amounted to a warrantless search. 

“Prior to the canine sniff of (Barrows’) home, the police had nothing but practical speculation regarding his activities in the home. Indeed, the police had not received any tips that directly linked (Barrows) to drug-related activity,” Reinaker wrote.

He dismissed criminal charges for drug dealing and dealing in proceeds of illegal activity. There is no record of the charges in online criminal court dockets, suggesting Barrows got them expunged.

“Based on the police’s affidavit, it is doubtful that the investigation would have been hindered in the time it took to obtain a search warrant,” Reinaker wrote.

Not a second prosecution

Because the forfeiture proceeding isn’t a second prosecution, Brown should be able to make his own determination about the evidence, the government contends. The government also contends that Reinaker was wrong to suppress the evidence.

Besides, government attorneys argued in court filings that there is “myriad independent, unsuppressed evidence” showing Barrows was dealing.

This includes: What the landlord told police, what another tenant in the apartment – a prison guard – told police, and Barrows’ several marijuana arrests and convictions in California. 

And Barrows’ brother told police that Barrows had just been released from serving three years in prison in California for marijuana dealing and had been living with his mother, who knew about Barrows’ dealing, but didn’t talk about it, according to documents filed Dec. 14 in the case.

Attorneys for Barrows and his mother argued in court documents that Brown cannot consider the suppressed evidence — or what investigators claim to have found based on it.

“It has to do with the suppression order being respected,” Earl said.

Barrows’ mother has no known criminal charges relating to her son’s arrest, but she’s a party to the case because the state wants the Charles Road house. The government contends she couldn’t afford it.

Ringgold’s attorney wrote she “believed (her son) had a legitimate source of income … Mr. Barrows is her son and she did not question that he was assisting her with paying for her home and expenses.”

The Attorney General’s Office maintains she will be unable to prove that and Barrows will be unable to prove his possessions were legally obtained.