It had all the makings of a wild Hollywood caper flick: A New Jersey couple flies to L.A., then drives a rented Mercedes SUV back east and explores America along the way.
The vehicle is stopped for traveling nearly 100 m.p.h. on Interstate 80 near North Platte, Nebraska.
The cops find more than $1 million in cash in the cargo area, mostly $100 bills stuffed into large plastic bags (along with dryer sheets) in $10,000 bundles.
Debo, a narcotics-sniffing dog, smells something rotten on the Benjamins. Drug money, perhaps?
The cash, the couple insists, belongs to an exotic dancer from Southern California—an apparently very thrifty and conscientious exotic dancer—who later testifies that she claimed her earnings on tax returns and stored the cash in a safe deposit box and gave it all to the couple from the traffic stop for delivery to New Jersey in order to purchase a nightclub they’d own together there.
The cops, of course, confiscate the cash, make arrests, and the whole thing goes to court.
How does the story end? You might be surprised.
The couple, Rajesh and Marina Dheri of Montville, N.J., are friends with the exotic dancer, Tara Mishra, 33, who wanted to get out of the stripping trade in favor of owning half of the nightclub (the Dheris would own the other half, ABC News reports).
Mishra, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., began tucking away her earnings when she started dancing at age 18, according to an opinion that U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon wrote last week, ABC News says.
Mishra filed a claim to get her money back, but the government argued she had no standing to object to the seizure because she wasn’t in the car during the March 2012 traffic stop, according to the Lincoln Journal-Star.
Mishra’s lawyer, Roger Diamond of Santa Monica, Calif., predictably said the cash confiscation “amounted to highway robbery.”
More from the Journal-Star:
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.
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.
In the end the judge said Mishra’s story was credible and that even the canine narcotics discovery had little value since the government offered no statistical support to back it up, the Journal-Star said.
“For all the court knows, there is a 90 percent chance that all money is drug tainted,” the judge said, adding that the government “left too many unanswered questions and had a general failure of proof in this case.”
So…Bataillon ruled that Mishra is entitled to all her money back—$1,074,900—plus interest since the day it was confiscated. She hasn’t received it yet, but the government has 60 days from the July 18 ruling to appeal, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Nebraska.
Technical point #1: Nebraska State Patrol policy is to destroy the cash in these cases and instead write a cashier’s check, the Journal-Star reports.
Technical point #2: Mishra is due to give birth within a month and “could really use that money,” Diamond said.
TheBlaze left a message for the owner of 46 Lounge to see if the deal with Mishra and Dehris was still on, but the call was not immediately returned.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.