People v. Superior Court (Plascencia)

Decision Date31 October 2002
Docket NumberNo. B152449.,B152449.
Citation126 Cal.Rptr.2d 793,103 Cal.App.4th 409
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesThe PEOPLE, Petitioner, v. The SUPERIOR COURT of Los Angeles County, Respondent, Maria PLASCENCIA, Real Party in Interest.

Steve Cooley, District Attorney, George M. Palmer, Head Deputy Dist. Atty., and Fred Klink, Deputy District Attorney, for Petitioners.

No appearance for Respondent.

Philip A. DeMassa, San Diego, for Real Party in Interest.


Petitioners the People of the State of California seek a writ of mandate directing the Los Angeles County Superior Court to (1) set aside its ruling that claimant and real party in interest Maria Plascencia has established standing to challenge the forfeiture of $68,317 seized by the government as the proceeds of drug dealing; and (2) to make factual findings on the question of Plascencia's ownership of the money. The People's petition raises the issue of how a claimant's standing, i.e., his or her legally cognizable interest in seized property, should be litigated in forfeiture proceedings brought pursuant to California's civil forfeiture laws, Health and Safety Code sections 11469 et seq.1 We conclude that the question of standing is one of law, and is properly determined by the trial court when the material facts underlying the standing inquiry are undisputed. However, when the determination of standing is intertwined with the merits of the forfeiture proceeding and turns upon factual disputes or witness credibility evaluations, we hold that the jury must determine the underlying facts, unless the claimant waives his or her right to a jury. Otherwise, a claimant's statutory and constitutional right to a jury trial in a forfeiture proceeding would be meaningless. The claimant, however, bears the threshold burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, his or her legally cognizable interest in the seized property at the forfeiture hearing, before the People are required to prove the merits of the forfeiture action. Because the determination of Plascencia's ownership of the seized currency requires the resolution of disputed facts and evaluations of witness credibility, a jury must make the factual findings underlying the trial court's ultimate determination of whether Plascencia has standing to challenge the forfeiture. Therefore, we deny the People's petition for writ of mandate.

a. 1997 search of Plascencia's son's residence and seizure of cash.

In July 1996, police were informed that claimant Plascencia's son, Martin Velasquez was distributing large quantities of cocaine from his residence located at 3641 West El Segundo Boulevard in Hawthorne. On January 15, 1997, police searched Velasquez's residence, along with another residence located at 3717 West 126th Street which they believed to be connected to Velasquez's drug dealing. At the El Segundo Boulevard address, police found Velasquez asleep in a bedroom. Inside the box spring upon which Velasquez had been lying,3 police discovered seven bundles of U.S. currency, secured with rubber bands. The currency had been placed in two rows along the interior edges of the box spring's frame. Small amounts of cash were also found in a nightstand and dresser in the same room. The total amount of cash discovered in the bedroom was $68,317. At the 126th Street address, police discovered eight kilograms of cocaine and approximately 70 grams of a substance that appeared to be tar heroin. Several persons, including Velasquez, were charged with and ultimately convicted of offenses related to narcotics trafficking.

b. Institution of forfeiture proceedings.

On February 20, 1997, the People filed in superior court a petition for forfeiture of the $68,317, pursuant to section 11470 et seq. On March 21, 1997, Plascencia filed a claim opposing forfeiture pursuant to section 11488.5. As was her right, Plascencia demanded a jury.

In January 1998, Plascencia filed a motion for summary judgment, which was denied. The trial court found triable issues of material fact existed regarding whether the seized money belonged to Plascencia and whether she maintained a residence at the El Segundo Boulevard house where the money was recovered. At the same time it heard Plascencia's summary judgment motion, the trial court heard and denied the People's motion to strike Plascencia's claim to the seized currency on the ground she lacked standing to contest the forfeiture.4 On March 13, 1998, the trial court, on its own motion, reconsidered and granted the People's motion to strike Plascencia's claim for lack of standing. In an April 9, 1998 judgment, the trial court found that the seized money was forfeitable and ordered it distributed pursuant to section 11489.

c. Prior appeal.

Plascencia appealed, contending, inter alia, that the trial court had erred by granting the People's motion to strike. In an unpublished opinion, we reversed and remanded. (People v. Sixty Eight Thousand Three Hundred Seventeen Dollars ($68,317.00) in U.S. Currency, supra, B122554.) We concluded that the trial court's original ruling denying the motion to strike was correct, because resolution of the question of standing turned upon disputed issues of material fact. Therefore, the "trier of fact [would] have to decide," at an evidentiary hearing, whether the money belonged to Plascencia. We declined to decide whether the standing issue had to be tried by a jury, because the parties had not addressed the question.

d. Subsequent evidentiary hearing.

On remand, the People noticed a "hearing to compel claimant to prove standing to contest forfeiture." At an evidentiary hearing held before the court sitting without a jury, officers testified regarding the discovery of the. cash. The People presented photographs, authenticated by one of the searching officers, showing that the cash was bound into seven bundles and neatly lined up in straight rows on opposite sides of the box spring when it was discovered. Various documents in the names of Velasquez and another defendant, Carmen Diaz, were found in the bedroom.5 A property tax bill bearing Plascencia's name, addressed to 3837 West 119th Street in Hawthorne, was found in the kitchen. Other tax bills bearing Plascencia's name were discovered in a kitchen drawer. According to one of the officers, large-scale narcotics traffickers typically do not store money and drugs together, but instead use multiple storage locations to minimize their losses in case they are apprehended. Narcotics traffickers often put property in the name of relatives or friends in order to avoid its seizure. The officer opined that the cash in the box spring represented the proceeds from narcotics trafficking.

Plascencia testified that the money found in the box spring at the El Segundo Boulevard residence belonged to her. For approximately one year prior to the search, she had lived at the El Segundo Boulevard residence with Velasquez. Plascencia had also lived with her boyfriend at a residence at 3837 119th Place in Hawthorne. She kept clothing at both residences, but most of her clothing, as well as her cosmetics, money, and other items, were kept at the El Segundo Boulevard residence. Plascencia's daughter, Angelica Estrada, confirmed her mother's testimony. Plascencia had been in Tijuana when the search of the El Segundo Boulevard residence occurred.

Plascencia had formerly owned two bars, one named Planque, the other El Habito. In 1992, she sold the Planque to Mauro Duran, the pastor of the Primera Iglesia Christiana Church, for $450,000.6 Estrada confirmed that Duran had had the property remodeled for use as a church. Duran paid Plascencia approximately $50,000 as a cash down payment in March 1992, and thereafter made monthly cash payments of $1818.14, using bills of varying denominations. Either Estrada or Plascencia personally collected the monthly cash payment. Plascencia identified documents as a copy of an escrow statement evidencing the sale and receipts evidencing the monthly payments from Duran. Plascencia had saved approximately $80,000 from her business endeavors.

After receiving the cash, Plascencia would count it, bundle it with a rubber band, and place it into the box spring. She would push the money through a slash in the fabric, tilting or shaking the box spring so the money would fall to the edges. She did not sort the bills into denominations; they were all "mixed." Estrada had seen her mother count the monthly payments and had, on a few occasions, seen Plascencia place cash into the box spring.

When Plascencia needed money, she would reach inside the box spring, take the amount she needed, and replace the rest. Although she periodically counted the cash, she did not keep written records. She never put money in a bank, believing it was safe in the box spring. She explained, "Me and that [box spring] were together for more than 20 years because it was my bank."

Plascencia told Velasquez about the money in the box spring. She trusted Velasquez although she knew he had been previously convicted of possession of drugs for sale.

e. The trial court's ruling and the petition for writ of mandate.

On August 2, 2001, after the evidentiary hearing, the trial court found Plascencia had established a prima facie case of standing sufficient to entitle her to a jury hearing on the question of forfeiture. The court stated, "My determination is that [Plascencia] has made out a prima facie case of standing by competent evidence ... [a]nd I do not now make a determination concerning credibility. I make only a determination that [Plascencia] has supplied enough evidence to entitle her to go to trial on the matter, [¶] The record reflects that there has been a jury demand. She is entitled to a jury trial on the matter. [¶] The jury will be empowered to rule on matters of credibility if the case actually is tried to a jury."

The People filed a petition seeking a writ...

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