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Doebler v. Commonwealth

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

November 1, 2019



          BRIEF FOR APPELLANT: Cicely J. Lambert Louisville, Kentucky.

          BRIEF FOR APPELLEE: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky, Christopher Henry Assistant Attorney General Frankfort, Kentucky.

          REPLY BRIEF FOR APPELLANT: Joshua Michael Reho Louisville, Kentucky.



          JONES, JUDGE.

         This is a criminal appeal brought by the Appellant, Alisha J. Doebler. Doebler seeks review of an order of forfeiture for $3, 759 in cash that law enforcement officials seized from a hotel room the day Doebler and her co-defendant, Jason Lankford, were arrested. Following a forfeiture hearing, at which the Commonwealth elected not to introduce any evidence, the Jefferson Circuit Court found Doebler obtained the money at issue from her late father's estate the afternoon before its seizure by police. Nevertheless, the trial court concluded the nature of Doebler's conviction (possession of drug paraphernalia) and the money's proximity to illegal drugs justified its forfeiture. Having reviewed the record in conjunction with all applicable legal authority, we REVERSE.

         I. Background

         Doebler and Lankford were indicted by the Jefferson County Grand Jury for trafficking in a controlled substance, first degree, schedule II methamphetamine two grams or more;[1] illegal possession of a controlled substance, first degree, schedule I heroin;[2] and illegal use or possession of drug paraphernalia.[3] On the day of the arrest, police seized the suspected drugs as well as various cellular telephones, a digital scale, a "loaded syringe," and $3, 759 in cash from a hotel room where Doebler and Lankford were present.[4]

         The discovery information tendered by the Commonwealth contains photographs that appear to be of the hotel room, the purse where the money was located, and the money after it was removed from the banking envelope where it was stored.[5] These photographs, however, were never authenticated and introduced as evidence by the Commonwealth.

         Lankford eventually entered a guilty plea to trafficking methamphetamine, less than two grams; possession of heroin; and possession of drug paraphernalia.[6] As part of his plea agreement, Lankford admitted to possessing two grams of methamphetamine packaged for sale, a baggie of heroin, and a digital scale at the time of his arrest. Doebler is not mentioned in the plea, and Lankford did not testify at the forfeiture hearing.

         Thereafter, Doebler entered a guilty plea to the charge of possession of drug paraphernalia, the syringe found in Lankford's room. The trafficking and possession charges were dismissed pursuant to the Commonwealth's offer. Prior to entering her plea of guilt, the Commonwealth informed the trial court that the parties had not been able to agree on forfeiture of the cash found in Doebler's purse when she was arrested, and the issue would require a decision by the court. Doebler's testimony at the plea hearing consisted of her acknowledgment of her rights and agreement to the following facts:

On March 14, 2017, in Jefferson County, KY officers were dispatched on a fire alarm issue at a motel. While on scene a motel employee stated a female had been stealing clothes from tenants and was at Room 226. Upon contact, the officers found the defendant was in possession of a syringe.

(R. at 113). After these facts were read to Doebler by the trial court, she admitted their truth while under oath. The trial court accepted Doebler's plea and sentenced her to twelve months' imprisonment, conditionally discharged for two years, based on her plea of guilty to the charge of possession of drug paraphernalia.

         After the trial court accepted Doebler's plea, it took a short recess and then reconvened to conduct the forfeiture hearing. For reasons that are not clear, the trial court began the hearing by directing Doebler's counsel to begin defendant's presentation of evidence.[7] Defense counsel called Doebler to the stand. Doebler testified that on March 13, 2017, the day before she was arrested, she went with her brother to settle out their late father's PNC bank account. The two received approximately $8, 000, which they split. Doebler's attorney introduced evidence to support this testimony, including certified bank and probate records.

         Approximately $200 of the total amount of money Doebler received was unaccounted for when it was seized by police. Doebler testified that she spent around $200 of the money on jewelry shortly after she received it. She stored the rest of the money, which consisted mostly of $100s, in a bank envelope inside her purse. She testified that the money had nothing to do with any drug trafficking activity.

         The Commonwealth then proceeded to cross-examine Doebler. She reiterated that she received the money at issue from her late father's estate on the afternoon of March 13th, and that she used around $200 of it to purchase jewelry later that evening, around eight or nine. The Commonwealth then asked Doebler about the nature and quantity of drugs discovered in the hotel room where she was arrested the next morning. Doebler denied any knowledge of the nature of the drugs or whether Lankford was packaging them for sale. She generally admitted that police found drugs in the room and a scale with residue on it. However, she stated she did not know whether the residue on the scale was from methamphetamine or heroin. She testified that it was not her room and not her drugs. Doebler admitted that she pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia with regard to a syringe found on a table in the room, but she denied that she was in Lankford's room to traffic drugs or that she planned to use the money to do so. When pressed why she was in the room, she explained that she went to Lankford's room to purchase a cellular phone with some of the money and that she planned to go from there to her bank to deposit the rest.

         The next witness to testify was Joshua, Doebler's brother. He testified that he remembered closing out the account with Doebler on or about March 13, 2017, and that the two received a check that they split. The Commonwealth did not cross-examine Joshua.

         After Doebler and her brother testified, the trial court turned the hearing over to the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth did not call any witnesses or introduce any evidence. Instead, it argued that it was entitled to rely on a presumption of close proximity and that Doebler had failed to rebut the presumption by clear and convincing evidence. The Commonwealth cited the proximity of the cash to the drugs and other paraphernalia, and argued this was sufficient to justify forfeiture, notwithstanding the evidence that Doebler obtained it from her late father's estate. Defense counsel attempted to rebut this argument by pointing out that the Commonwealth had failed to proffer any evidence to establish that Doebler was using the currency to traffic drugs. He noted that ...

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