Man wins right to sue U.S. government over pot car

Monday, June 2, 2003 Posted: 9:15 PM EDT (0115 GMT)

LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) -- A Mexican national may sue the U.S. government for selling him a car with a hidden load of marijuana, and then arresting him when he tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in it, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found the government's argument that it should be immune from Jose Aguado Cervantes' lawsuit was "so off the mark as to be embarrassing."

The appellate panel reinstated Cervantes' negligence claims against the government for allegedly failing to find and remove the drugs from the car he purchased in July of 1999 at a U.S. Marshals Service Auction in San Diego, California.

Four months earlier, the car was seized by the Immigration and Naturalization Service after it was used to transport illegal immigrants into the United States but agents apparently failed to notice 199 pounds of marijuana secreted in its bumpers, the court said.

But the justices decided that Cervantes, a resident of Mexico, could not sue for false imprisonment or false arrest because U.S. Customs agents who found the pot when Cervantes tried to cross the border from Mexico to the United States in October of 1999 "had reasonable cause to believe his arrest was lawful."

Cervantes spent three and a half months in jail, charged with drug smuggling. He was released after U.S. investigators realized that the marijuana, which had been welded into the bumper, was so decomposed that it could not have been placed there just months earlier, Cervantes' attorney Stephen Estey of San Diego said.

Estey called the court's decision to overturn the lower court "refreshing."

"My client is a 67-year-old grandfather and has never had so much as a parking ticket in his life," Estey said. "He has a remarkably good outlook ... it was a rough ride."

The justices criticized prosecutors for failing to heed their earlier order to settle the case, saying the government "thumbs its nose at its obligation to see that justice is done."

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego declined to comment because the case was still being litigated.