HELENA – Lorenzo Ayala saved more than $16,000 to buy tractor parts while on a road trip to Montana to visit a woman he met online, but he ended up unwittingly contributing it to the state's first K-9 unit.
Ayala forfeited his wad of cash after a state trooper became suspicious that the California farmer's generous amount of cologne, cluttered car and disputed criminal history were signs of drug trafficking.
Ayala, of Palo Alto, was never charged with a crime – but Montana kept his money.
This year, Montana became the fourth state to overhaul what activists call "policing for profit." Beginning July 1, officers must store suspects' assets, such as the cash Ayala had in his trunk, until the owner is convicted of a crime involving that property.
"The police ought to have to prove something before they take your stuff away," Chris Young, one of Ayala's attorneys, said. "And now they do."
Since 2013, the patrol spent $172,000 in drug forfeiture funds – including money like Ayala's that was never connected to a crime – and about $21,000 in grants to buy and train the state's first K-9 unit, spokesman John Barnes said.
The state Department of Justice declined to answer whether Montana will participate more in a federal asset forfeiture program under the new statute and offered no response to the law, but opposed it at the Legislature this session.
Under the outgoing law, the state can confiscate any assets that law enforcement officers have probable cause to believe were obtained illegally.
Ayala was traveling back to California in February 2013 after the Billings woman he met online stood him up and he was unable to find the tractor parts he needed. Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Erick Fetterhoff pulled him over on Interstate 90 near Livingston, according to court records.
Ayala and Fetterhoff could not be reached for comment.
Ayala's license plates were expired, his driver's license was suspended and he should have been driving with a breath-alcohol ignition device. Fetterhoff, a drug recognition expert, saw several items that made him suspicious: a single key in the ignition, a bag of beef jerky, a bottle of Visine, cologne, lighters, clothing stored in plastic grocery bags and trash littered throughout the car.
Troopers are trained that people who transport narcotics often use masking scents to cover up drug odors and accumulate excessive trash during long periods of travel.
Fetterhoff called for a K-9 unit from the Livingston Police Department and the drug-sniffing dog alerted officers to the presence of narcotics in the Volkswagen Jetta. The trooper searched the vehicle and found the $16,020 in the trunk.
Despite finding no drugs and not charging Ayala with a crime, state prosecutors petitioned to keep the cash. District Judge Brenda Gilbert sided with the state and ordered Ayala to relinquish the money on Oct. 27, 2014.
"Though no drugs were found in the vehicle, the odor of narcotics can linger in a vehicle and result in a positive canine alert, even after the narcotics have been removed," Gilbert wrote in her ruling.
Ayala's lawyers, Young and Elisabeth Montoya, were unable to prove otherwise. Young said the new law changes that.
"It's a tremendous improvement that the government has to prove the relationship instead of forcing the person to prove there is no relationship," Young said. "The burden of proof is on the right person now."