Florida Keys

Feds want cash seized in a raid last year, so they’re suing the cash

This is what the task force seized from the Big Coppitt Key house.
This is what the task force seized from the Big Coppitt Key house.

The federal government is suing a bundle of cash seized in a drug raid last year near Key West that turned up a smaller amount of cocaine and marijuana than agents anticipated they’d find when they served their warrant.

As in many “in rem” asset forfeiture cases, the feds want the money because they suspect it was gained from illegal drug sales. The people arrested in the case were charged, and one has already pleaded guilty to cocaine possession. The other defendant’s marijuana and drug paraphernalia case is still in the courts.

The money, totaling $166,400, was found in a laundry basket inside a Big Coppitt Key home where a federal, state and local drug task force executed a search warrant on Jan. 10. Agents deposited the money in the U.S. Marshals Service Seized Asset Account, and federal prosecutors want to make sure it stays there.

According to Forbes, “Under civil forfeiture, property owners do not have to be convicted of a crime, or even charged with one, to permanently lose their property. Instead, the government can forfeit a property if it’s found to ‘facilitate’ a crime, no matter how tenuous the connection. So rather than sue the owner, in civil forfeiture proceedings, the government sues the property itself.”

In the house at 39 1st St., agents found indicators there was a drug-dealing operation happening there — plastic bags with cocaine and marijuana residue in them, heat sealer dealers typically use to package contraband, scales for weighing drugs covered in marijuana residue and the cash, which was also packaged by someone who used a heat sealer.

“The law enforcement agents recognized the heat sealing equipment as being consistent with that typically used to package narcotics, and the bundling of the money as consistent with the manner in which individuals selling drugs store the money,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Adrienne Rosen wrote in an Oct. 27 complaint.

Although there were small amounts of cocaine and marijuana throughout the house, the agents did not find a a large haul.

They served the warrant after finding vacuum-sealed bags capable of storing two pounds of marijuana inside trash cans outside the house on Dec. 5, 2016. The bags had marijuana residue in them.

On Dec. 19, agents found small plastic bags in the trash can containing “trace amounts” of marijuana inside a cardboard box with the address of the house on it, along with the name Steven Leto.

Leto, 26, was home when agent came knocking in January, and so was Marisa Estopinan, 37, and Nelson Estopinan, 68.

According to Leto’s arrest report, he told the agents the money was Nelson Estopinan’s and he loaned it to Leto. Police also found $1,567 in Leto’s pocket, according to the affidavit. He pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor marijuana and drug equipment possession.

Marisa Estopinan pleaded guilty in June to cocaine possession, a third-degree felony, and misdemeanor narcotics equipment possession, and was sentenced 46 months probation. Prosecutors dropped a felony charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

The charge stemmed from a .380 pistol and Glock 19 pistol with one full 15-round .9mm magazine and another 31-round magazine agents found in the house the day of the raid.

This surveillance footage, which is being published for the first time, shows what happened in 2012 when four civilians were killed during a drug interdiction operation carried out by the D.E.A. and local law enforcement. Mattathias Schwartz, a jo

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204