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Used Car Came With 119 Pounds of Pot

Court says owner, jailed when the drug was found, can pursue claim against seller -- the U.S.

June 03, 2003|Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writer

The car Jose Aguado Cervantes bought at a U.S. marshal's auction in 1999 came with more than he bargained for: 119 pounds of marijuana, hidden in the bumpers.

Customs agents found the marijuana three months later when Cervantes drove the car from his home in Tijuana into the United States. It cost the 67-year-old grandfather 3 1/2 undeserved months in jail.

An appeals court in Pasadena said Monday that there isn't much he can do now about the jail time. But the court said his negligence claim against the federal government "is an entirely different matter."

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the government's argument against Cervantes' negligence claim is "patently without merit" and "so off-the-mark as to be embarrassing."

What recompense, if any, Cervantes eventually may get has yet to be determined. Cervantes could not be reached for comment Monday, but his lawyer, Stephen J. Estey of San Diego, said he would press for damages. The appeals court said Monday that the car Cervantes bought at a federal auction in San Diego on July 15, 1999, had been seized by the Immigration and Naturalization Service four months earlier, after it had been used to carry undocumented immigrants across the border.

Cervantes says the INS and the marshal's service failed to inspect the car before the sale. If they had, he said, they would have found the marijuana, hidden in compartments welded into the bumpers.

"Cervantes remained similarly unaware of the contraband until its discovery by U.S. customs agents as he tried to cross the U.S. border on Oct. 22, 1999," the appeals court said. "Although Cervantes denied knowledge of the marijuana and informed agents that he had purchased the vehicle at a U.S. marshal's auction, he was arrested and incarcerated."

The government eventually realized that the marijuana had been there before Cervantes bought the car, and dropped all charges. But by then, he had spent months in jail awaiting trial.

Cervantes, who had never before been arrested, filed claims against the government alleging negligence, false imprisonment and false arrest.

The appeals court agreed Monday with an earlier district court ruling that he cannot recover damages for false arrest and imprisonment, because customs agents had reasonable cause to arrest him.

But the appellate judges disagreed with the lower court's ruling that Cervantes' negligence claims were similarly unwarranted.

The government's arguments, they said, "simply fail the straight-face test."

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