In 2002, Deputy Shannon Penn, an interdiction officer with the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department, saw a westbound 1996 Ford F-150 pickup cross the right hand fog line. Penn testified that the Ford crossed the fog line when it was at most twenty yards away. Penn decided to stop the Ford pickup for careless driving.
Penn found that Quang Thanh Tran drove the pickup with two passengers, Johnson Quoc Nguyen and Hanh Ti My Le. The three occupants indicated that they left Charlotte, North Carolina and were traveling on I-20 on their way to their destination – Houston, Texas. They said they borrowed the truck and were going to Houston to shop.
Penn became suspicious because they were going to a source city, coming from North Carolina, and had a third party vehicle that was borrowed. Tran consented to a search of the truck. After seeing indications that one of the gas tanks had been removed or tampered with, he asked them to follow him back to the police station and they appear to have done so willingly.
Upon closer examination, it was determined that someone cut a secret panel into the gas tank. When Penn looked inside the gas tank, he found $170,040. The money was bundled and wrapped in clear plastic wrap, then in tin foil and then vacuum sealed wrap.
They all said that the truck had been purchased within a week or two of the date of the stop. All three occupants of the pickup denied any knowledge of the money. All three occupants claimed that the pickup belonged to Nguyen’s girlfriend in North Carolina.
All three were released and Rankin County then initiated a civil forfeiture proceeding. While Nguyen and Le submitted affidavits denying knowledge of money, Tran wrote an affidavit stating it was his life savings. He did not trust banks so he kept his money in the gas tank.
The State then indicted all three of them for money laundering under Section 97-23-101(1)(b)(ii)(1) of the Mississippi Code. Le was found not guilty. Tran and Nguyen were found guilty and sentenced to 20 years. On appeal, they argued the stop was illegal. MCOA affirmed against Tran and reversed against Nguyen.
A. The traffic stop
We said in Burnett that a law enforcement officer has the authority to stop a motorist if the officer has probable cause to believe that the person is committing a traffic offense. Moreover, in Henderson, we said that failure to have regard for the width and use of the street by swerving off the side of the road or crossing the marker lines constitutes probable cause for a traffic stop.
B. Money Laundering as to Nguyen
To sustain a conviction under Section 97-23-101(1)(b)(ii)(1), the State must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that : (1) Nguyen transported or attempted to transport money across the state border; (2) the money at issue represented proceeds of specified unlawful activity; (3) Nguyen knew that the money represented proceeds of specified unlawful activity and; (4) Nguyen knew that such transportation was designed to conceal or disguise the nature, location, source, ownership, or control of the money at issue. Miss. Code Ann. § 97-23-101(1)(b)(ii)(1)(Rev. 2003).
MCOA noted that elements #1 and #2 above were proven against Nguyen but not element #3. Since Nguyen denied having any knowledge that the money was secreted in the gas tank and was not caught in actual possession of the money or the truck in which it was discovered, the State was required to prove that Nguyen had constructive possession of the money.
While there is evidence that connects Nguyen to the truck, there is no evidence that Nguyen owned the truck. Moreover, there is no evidence that Nguyen knew that $170,000 was secreted in the false gas tank. By his affidavit, Nguyen stated that he was not aware of the money, had never seen it before, and did not know to whom it belonged. According to Tran’s affidavit, Tran owned the money and he “did not tell the others of the money in his truck.”
While it may seem suspicious that Tran was able to somehow borrow Nguyen’s girlfriend’s truck and hide $170,000 in it, all without Nguyen’s knowledge, that suspicion does not rise to the level of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Nguyen knew the money in the gas tank represented proceeds from narcotics trafficking.
C. Money Laundering as to Tran
Like Nguyen, Tran denied knowledge of the triple wrapped money hidden in the false gas tank. However, Tran recanted his initial denial and later filed a sworn affidavit incident to the forfeiture proceeding. In his sworn affidavit, Tran claimed the money represented his life savings. Tran lied at least once. Either he lied when he said the money did not belong to him, or he lied when he said it did.
The jury heard evidence that (a) Tran drove a truck from North Carolina to Houston, Texas for the purpose of a shopping trip, (b) the truck was not owned by any of its occupants, (c) the truck had an auxiliary gas tank, (d) the auxiliary gas tank had been electronically and physically disconnected and altered into a secret storage compartment, (e) Tran admitted in his affidavit that he stored over $170,000 in a false gas tank, (f) Tran admitted that the money was his, (g) the money was wrapped up and plastic and sealed, (h) Deputy Penn testified that Tran initially denied ownership of the money, and (i) Agent Larry Davidson, DEA, testified that, in his expert opinion, the money was wrapped in a manner intended to disguise the scent of the money from drug dogs.
Also, the record before us reveals that the jury could have inferred concealment. Tran had an overall plan or design to move what Agent Davidson testified to be proceeds of narcotics sales from North Carolina through Mississippi. Assuming Tran put his life savings in a false gas tank with the intent to transport them to Houston, Texas, that act is clearly designed to facilitate undetected transportation of the cash. Further, Agent Davidson testified that the money was wrapped in a manner designed to disguise the scent of money from drug-sniffing dogs.
So, we can conclude that Tran, the admitted owner of the money, wrapped the money to disguise its scent and stowed the money in a false gas tank to disguise it from sight. We affirm Tran’s conviction.
This is the only Mississippi case that I know that discusses the Mississippi money laundering statute. The first hyperlink is MCOA. The second hyperlink is from MSC, where they said: we find Tran’s indictment was defective for failure to specify the unlawful activity, but we further find the indictment’s defect was harmless error so we affirm. That is obviously a prosecutor concern.