A federal judge has ordered the government to return more than $1 million in suspected drug money to a California woman.
The Nebraska State Patrol trooper confiscated the money after a traffic stop near North Platte last year, but the judge said there wasn't enough of a connection between it and drugs.
"There is no nexus between the currency and any illegal activity," U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Bataillon said in an opinion this week.
He said Tara Mishra, of Rancho Cucamonga, was entitled to the money — all $1,074,900 of it.
At a bench trial in Omaha last month, Mishra said she earned it as an exotic dancer and had given it to Rajesh and Marina Dheri to be invested in a nightclub in New Jersey.
On the night of March 3, 2012, Nebraska State Patrol Trooper Ryan Hayes stopped Rajesh Dheri for going 93 in a 75 mph zone on Interstate 80 near North Platte.
He and his wife said they'd flown to Los Angeles two days earlier to visit a friend and rented the Mercedes SUV to drive home to New Jersey, wanting to see the country and make several stops along the way.
Hayes gave Rajesh Dheri a speeding ticket and said they were free to go.
But then he asked if they had anything illegal in the vehicle, specifically weapons or large amounts of drugs or money.
Rajesh Dheri said no. So did his wife. They both gave Hayes permission to search it.
Troopers found two drawstring bags in the cargo area holding large Ziploc bags with rubber-banded bundles of cash — mostly $100s — along with dryer sheets.
They seized it, believing it was related to narcotics.
The Dehris originally said they were taking the money to New Jersey for their friends, Tasha and Rajat Mishra, for a business deal involving a nightclub.
Troopers put them in handcuffs and took them, the rental car and the money to the patrol office in North Platte, where Debo, a drug-sniffing dog, indicated the smell of drugs on the money.
An officer called Rajat Mishra, who verified the story. And they found his fingerprints on the plastic bags that held the cash.
Tasha Mishra filed a claim to get it back, but the government argued she had no standing to object to the seizure because she wasn't in the car.
The U.S. Attorney's office argued the large amount of money, that it was bundled with hair ties and dryer sheets and the fact that the Dehris lied about having it in their vehicle all gave rise to a substantial connection to drug trafficking.
But in his order Thursday, Bataillon found it was not enough.
The judge said fingerprints supported the story the Dehris initially told, that the money belonged to the Mishras, and the Mishras confirmed it.
At trial, Tasha Mishra, then seven months pregnant, and her husband said she'd claimed the earnings on tax returns and provided details about an agreement they had to buy part of a bar known as 46 Lounge.
She said she put drier sheets in the bags because the money smelled like an ash tray when she got it out of the safe deposit boxes.
Bataillon said the court was somewhat troubled by a Nebraska State Patrol policy to convert the cash into a cashier's check and destroy the money, which means there's no way to rebut accusations it smelled of drugs.
He said the canine alert had little value in the case because the government offered no statistical support to back it up.
"For all the court knows, there is a 90 percent chance that all money is drug tainted," the judge said.
In general, Bataillon said, the government "left too many unanswered questions and had a general failure of proof in this case."
He directed the government to return the money, plus interest since the day it was taken.