LOS ANGELES -- More than three-quarters of all the paper money in Los Angeles has some amount of cocaine or some other drug stuck to it, according to a federal appeals court decision that vividly illuminates how extensively the drug trade touches mainstream commerce.
Of every four bills in circulation in Los Angeles, more than three have traces of cocaine or another illicit drug actually stuck to the paper, according to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which relied on that fact to dismiss a case against a man suspected of drug trafficking.
In powdered form, the court said, cocaine is so sticky that a bit stays behind when a drug dealer wraps it in a bill folded like an envelope or a user snorts it through a dollar used as a makeshift straw. As that bill is pressed against another in a wallet or counted in combination with others in a bank or cash register, those other bills get contaminated, too.
That means, the 9th Circuit court said, that everyone in Los Angeles is conceivably at risk of being barked at by drug-sniffing police dogs.
"The bottom line," echoed attorney Jerold L. Bloom, who defended an Inglewood, Calif., man carrying $30,060 that prosecutors charged was drug money, "is that anyone with tainted currency can be stopped and alleged to be a drug dealer. That's guilt by association."
The notion that most U.S. currency is tainted with drugs has been well-known in law enforcement and scientific circles for about 10 years. However, the 9th Circuit decision, issued Tuesday by the San Francisco-based court, underscores just how widespread the taint has become.
Because it's so widespread, the court ruled, the ability of police and prosecutors to rely in court on a "positive alert" from a drug-sniffing dog will now be "seriously diminished."
Such a "positive alert" used to be "strong evidence" that a person bought or intended to buy drugs. No more, the court said, ordering officers to show other evidence "clearly connecting the money to drugs."
The Inglewood case began on April 24, 1990, when sheriff's deputies stopped a car driven by Albert Joseph Alexander, then 30, alleging that he had run a stop sign. On the right front seat was a plastic bag filled with $30,060. The money was arranged in $1,000 stacks bound by rubber bands; it was made up of $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. Mr. Alexander, a mechanic, said that he had plans to buy into a friend's trucking business and was carrying the cash to that meeting.
Deputies used a dog, who sensed drugs in the bag of money. They then searched Mr. Alexander and his car for drugs, but found none. State criminal charges were dismissed, but in a proceeding in the civil courts, federal prosecutors sought to keep the $30,060 as drug money.