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United States v. Seventeen Thousand Nine Hundred Dollars ($17

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

June 20, 2017

United States of America, c/o United States Attorney's Office, Plaintiff-Appellee
Seventeen Thousand Nine Hundred Dollars ($17, 900.00) In United States Currency, Defendant Joyce Copeland and Angela Rodriquez, Claimants-Appellants

          Argued May 9, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:15-cv-00368)

          Christa Laser argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellants. Christopher Landau entered an appearance.

          Christopher B. Brown, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for appellee United States of America. With him on the brief were Elizabeth Trosman and Chrisellen R. Kolb, Assistant U.S. Attorneys. R. Craig Lawrence, Assistant U.S. Attorney, entered an appearance.

          Before: Rogers, Tatel and Pillard, Circuit Judges.


          Tatel, Circuit Judge

         This is a civil-forfeiture case, which is why the plaintiff is the United States of America and the defendant is a pile of cash. The government claims that the cash is subject to forfeiture because it is connected to the "exchange [of] a controlled substance, " i.e., drug trafficking. 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6). Appellants, themselves flesh and blood, have intervened in this action, offering sworn testimony that the money is theirs and wholly unrelated to drugs. According to the government, that testimony is so implausible that appellants lack Article III standing to intervene. The district court, deciding the issue on summary judgment, agreed. We reverse. At summary judgment, claimants alleging an ownership interest need only make an assertion of ownership and provide some evidence of ownership to establish standing. Because "[c]redibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge, " Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986), we conclude that appellants met their burden.


         The practice of civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property and then seek permanent forfeiture in a civil proceeding in rem-meaning, in a proceeding against the property-all without so much as charging the owner with a criminal offense. Leonard v. Texas, No. 16-122, slip op. at 2 (U.S. Mar. 6, 2017) (Thomas, J.) (statement respecting the denial of certiorari). Though rooted in an English Law tradition that operated "under the fiction that the thing itself, rather than the owner, was guilty of the crime, " contemporary civil forfeiture in the federal system is a creature of statute, the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions, and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Id. at 4 (citing Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663, 684-85 (1974)); see United States v. $133, 420, 672 F.3d 629, 634 (9th Cir. 2012).

         The typical forfeiture action begins when the government files a verified complaint against the property specifying, among other things, "the statute under which the forfeiture action is brought" and "sufficiently detailed facts to support a reasonable belief that the government will be able to meet its burden of proof at trial." Supplemental Rule G(2). As plaintiff, the government bears the ultimate "burden of proof . . . to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the property is subject to forfeiture." 18 U.S.C. § 983(c)(1).

         Although the initial parties to the proceeding are the government and the property, "[a] person who asserts an interest in the defendant property may contest the forfeiture by filing a claim in the court where the action is pending." Supplemental Rule G(5)(a)(i). A claim, in turn, must identify the property and claimant, state the claimant's interest in the property, and be signed by the claimant under penalty of perjury. Id.

         "Unlike in typical civil proceedings, the government may commence limited discovery immediately after a verified claim is filed." $133, 420, 672 F.3d at 635. Under Supplemental Rule G(6)(a), "[t]he government may serve special interrogatories limited to the claimant's identity and relationship to the defendant property without the court's leave at any time after the claim is filed and before discovery is closed." These same rules provide that the "government may move to strike a claim . . . because the claimant lacks standing" and that such a motion "may be presented as a motion for judgment on the pleadings or as a motion to determine after a hearing or by summary judgment whether the claimant can carry the burden of establishing standing by a preponderance of the evidence." Supplemental Rule G(8)(c).

         This case traces its roots back to March 28, 2014, when an Amtrak passenger mistakenly removed another person's backpack from a train at Washington's Union Station. Later that day, he opened the backpack to find a shopping bag containing $17, 900 in cash. Commendably, he turned the backpack over to Amtrak police.

         In addition to the money, Amtrak police officers found inside the bag a student notebook and other personal effects. One of the papers contained the name Peter Rodriguez, as did the train manifest. A police narcotics dog ...

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