'Suspicious' couple goes free, but officers keep $200,000 for evidence

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 17 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

About $200,000 in small bills of suspected drug money was confiscated from a South Dakota couple after a police dog caught the scent of drugs on a routine traffic stop on westbound 1-80 Monday.

Chamberlin Neff Utah Highway Patrol

The Utah Highway Patrol confiscated about $200,000 from two South Dakota residents driving through Utah on their way to California because the stack of cash smelled like drugs.

After UHP officer Chamberlin Neff pulled over a gold passenger vehicle going west on I-80, he noticed a 30-year-old male and his 24-year old female passenger acting "very suspicious," Neff said.

Neff said he didn't get permission to search the man's car, but said he let his 6-year-old, drug-sniffing dog, Tank, out of his police cruiser for a quick sniff around the "suspicious" vehicle anyway.

"That's my probable cause," Neff said. "I don't need a search warrant if he sniffs something out … He's not biased. "

After Tank started "scratching and barking" around the trunk, Neff opened it and found about $200,000 in small and large bills neatly folded and bound into about 45 bundles, bagged and then stuffed into a backpack.

Tank is trained to sniff out drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin, said Neff, who is the dogs permanent handler.

No drugs were found in the vehicle, but the man and woman were taken to the UHP office in Murray where they were questioned about the money. The man said he was going to California because he had never "been there before," while the woman said they were going to "see some friends," Neff said. "Then they told me this story about how they were donating the money to a Catholic church there (in California)."

Neff said he didn't believe it because they couldn't tell him the name of a church or where it was located.

No drug related charges will be filed against the couple who were released three hours later without the cash, which was booked into the station's evidence room. They were given two misdemeanor citations for a lane violation and having a cracked windshield.

They can come back with their attorney and give a legitimate reason for the money if they want it back, Neff said. The money "just goes to the court system now to figure out (what to do with it)."

E-mail: jhancock@desnews.com

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