Was $12,000 left at Moorhead Fryn' Pan a generous tip or drug money?
MOORHEAD - For the struggling waitress with five children, the $12,000 left at the table in a to-go box must have seemed too good to be true.
Moorhead police decided it was just that.
Now, the waitress is suing in Clay County District Court, claiming the cash was given to her and police shouldn't have seized it as drug money.
"The thing that's sad about it is here's somebody who truly needs this gift ... and now the government is getting in the way of it," said the woman's attorney, Craig Richie of Fargo.
Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson said he couldn't discuss the matter.
"We certainly have an ongoing investigation with it, with suspicion of narcotics or the involvement of narcotics investigators," he said.
Assistant County Attorney Michelle Lawson also declined to discuss the pending lawsuit.
The Forum isn't identifying the waitress in order to protect her in case the cash was part of a drug deal.
According to the lawsuit filed three weeks ago:
The waitress was working at the Moorhead Fryn' Pan when she noticed that a woman had left a to-go box from another restaurant on the table.
The waitress picked it up, followed the woman to her car and tried to give her the box, but the woman replied, "No, I am good; you keep it."
The waitress thought that was strange, but she agreed and went back inside the restaurant, the lawsuit states. The box felt too heavy to contain only leftovers, so she looked inside and found cash rolled up in rubber bands.
"Even though I desperately needed the money as my husband and I have 5 children, I feel I did the right thing by calling Moorhead Police," she states in the lawsuit.
Police arrived and seized the money, which the woman was told amounted to roughly $12,000. She was first told the money would be hers if it wasn't claimed within 60 days, the lawsuit states. Then she claims she was told to wait 90 days.
Ninety days passed, and police told her she wouldn't receive the money because it's being held as part of a drug investigation. Instead, she got a $1,000 reward.
Police are arguing the money had a strong odor of marijuana and that it therefore falls under a state law that allows money to be seized if it's found in proximity to controlled substances, the lawsuit states. A police dog also performed a sniff test on the money, and his handler believed the dog detected an odor, the lawsuit states.
Richie said police have told him the cash isn't available for independent drug testing. He believes the law is being misapplied.
"It is not meant to go and keep away a gift from somebody that needed it," he said, stressing that no one has suggested the waitress had anything to do with drugs.
The waitress claims the money didn't smell like marijuana. Two other restaurant employees who were working at the time said in affidavits that they also stood over the box but didn't smell marijuana, despite both being familiar with the drug.
Richie said there was no evidence of a drug deal. He said the seizure could discourage people from turning in found money and set a bad precedent.
"That would mean that any money that ever had any drugs on it could be confiscated by the police at any time," he said. "You know how ridiculous that would be?"
A University of Massachusetts-led study released in 2009 found that up to 90 percent of U.S. paper contained traces of cocaine, according to published reports.
Richie said the financial plight of the waitress and her husband was well-known at their church. He said it's "far more likely" that someone was trying to make an anonymous donation than it is that a drug deal was going down.
"It smells of unfairness is what it smells of," he said.