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Ex-officer to be resentenced for embezzling

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock)

Van Buren, AR

A former Van Buren police officer convicted of embezzling drug money will get a new sentence after winning an appeal.

The decision by a three judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis found in favor of Miklos A. Molnar, 49, who is serving a five-year term for stealing nearly $51,000 from the Police Department's evidence locker. The decision handed down last week means the case will go back to U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson in Fort Smith for a new sentencing hearing.

Both sides in the case will be given a chance to present facts and testimony at the hearing, said Debbie Groom, acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas.

Groom said her office likely will present new testimony, but the office first will conduct a thorough review. Molnar will be resentenced, but the court's ruling doesn't guarantee a reduction in his sentence, she said.

Molnar, a 20-year department veteran, pleaded guilty in August 2008 to embezzling $50,997 from evidence in 14 cases. Dawson chose to increase Molnar's sentence to five years from the recommended 10 to 16 months after hearing testimony in a Jan. 30, 2009, hearing.

Molnar had been in charge of the department's evidence room and was part of a Drug Enforcement Administration task force when he took money that had been seized by police. Dawson increased the sentence, citing Molnar's potential impact on federal Drug Enforcement Administration investigations.

In its decision, the panel quoted Dawson, who told Molnar that some of the money he took was therefore not available to the DEA for drug purchases. "So I think your activities have significantly impaired multiple drug prevention work," Dawson told Molnar.

The assertion that Molnar hindered other investigations was found to be in error because the DEA couldn't readily access the money to use in investigations. The appeals court ruled that the assumption led to the unnecessary sentencing increase.

"Had the district court not plainly erred in considering the facts relating to 'drug buy' money, it would not have varied upward to the extent - 275 percent - that it did," the panel found.

The panel agreed with Dawson on the importance of Molnar's role as a police officer but noted the former officer already had received a higher recommended sentence because of his job.

"Lawbreaking by a highranking police officer promotes disrespect for the law and must be addressed at this sentencing," Dawson told Molnar, according to court records.

News of the resentencing didn't carry much significance for Van Buren Police Chief Kenneth Bell, who said at the sentencing hearing that he considered Molnar a personal friend.

"I really don't have a thought one way or the other," Bell said last week.

Bell said his role in the investigation ended when he turned it over to the FBI. However, several changes have been made at the department to make sure such a crime isn't repeated, he said.

Molnar was the last person to be in charge of the evidence room and involved in drug investigations, Bell said. The department has since hired a civilian to operate the evidence locker, he said.

"We've got a lot more checks and balances," Bell said. "Originally [Molnar] took care of the evidence room and was a drug officer. We've taken the step to put somebody in between there. Live and learn." The panel consisted of judges C. Arlen Beam of Lincoln, Neb.; Michael J. Melloy of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Raymond W. Gruender of St. Louis.

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