Couple get back money police seized but say raid's aftermath was costly

March 08, 1995|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,Sun Staff Writer

A couple whose life savings were seized as suspected drug money got their money back from Baltimore County yesterday, but they said that the aftermath of the police raid has cost them thousands of dollars.

Nury Barrera Lugo and her husband, Jose Luis Lugo, were not charged with any crime after Baltimore and Baltimore County police broke through the door of their Essex apartment Dec. 10, 1993.

By last April, they were desperate for money and hired attorney Bryan A. Levitt, who filed a civil action against the county.

Last week, Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz ordered the county attorney to return the Lugos' $14,190 savings, with interest. The judge also ordered the return of $1,100 taken from the wallet of the Lugos' houseguest Rigoberto Guzman, 39, who was visiting from the Dominican Republic.

"Well, I feel good, you know, to get the money back," Mrs. Lugo said yesterday, with check in hand. "But I am not satisfied, because I didn't get all the money back. . . . I lose more than half of my money. How can somebody come go through your house, take your money?"

The Lugos received $733.63 interest, but she said they lost $3,000 in electronics and other items after burglars took advantage of the broken door. They also are in debt to utilities, relatives and friends.

"I have to repay people who gave us money to eat," Mrs. Lugo said. After living with friends for several months, she said, the couple found an apartment in the city.

The couple stored their furniture to protect it after the burglary but lost it because they couldn't pay the bill, she said. Their former landlord also is demanding $1,060 to repair the door the police broke down.

Mrs. Lugo, 24, a native of Venezuela, said their money was in cash because she hasn't trusted banks since her family lost its money when the banks failed there. She and her husband, a native of Puerto Rico, had saved the money from their clothing-factory jobs so that she could attend computer classes.

Mr. Levitt also is dissatisfied with the outcome of the case, because Judge Levitz refused to require the county to pay his attorney's fees, which will amount to about 40 percent of the award for his year's work.

"It is absolutely outrageous that they should have to lose almost half their money to get back their money -- which should not have been taken from them in the first place," Mr. Levitt said. "I do not think justice was served under these circumstances. There is absolutely no disincentive for Baltimore County to not repeat this situation."

Judge Levitz said later that Maryland does not provide for attorneys' fees in civil cases, except where the law specifically includes them. Mr. Levitt said he will ask the legislature and the court system's rules committee to recommend a change.

County Attorney Lee S. Thomson, who has not returned calls for several days, previously had said the county always intended to return the money but had to be sure the Lugos were the rightful owners. He noted other names in the police report.

When the 13 police officers burst into their apartment as she was cooking that evening, Mrs. Lugo, said she thought they were going to be killed. First embarrassed, she later became depressed, she said.

The police had a no-knock search warrant arising from a city drug investigation and seized the cash as suspected drug profits.

Mrs. Lugo said she and her husband didn't complain at first because they thought having cash might be illegal in America.

Financially, the couple would have been better off had they been charged with a crime, Mr. Levitt and Mr. Thomson agreed, because the county would have had just 90 days to seek forfeiture of the money.

"I don't know," Mrs. Lugo said, "but this is crazy. I'm coming from another country, and this never would happen in my country. I'm working again, saving money again, but I'm scared to bring this money to my house. I'm scared they're going to do it again. If not with me, they're going to do it to somebody else."

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