United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit
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
May 9, 2017
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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).
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
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 ...