from the procedures-matter dept
The government has lost its claim to money lifted from two men by the DEA at the Cleveland airport. Despite agents being super-sure the money was either drug profits or intended for drug purchases, no charges were brought. But the DEA decided to keep the money — $31,000 from one and $10,000 from the other — for itself.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals says not so fast. The decision [PDF] lets the government know it’s jumping the gun on claiming sole ownership of this lifted cash. The opinion starts out with a brief description of how the cash-focused Drug Enforcement Agency starts each airport workday.
The parties dispute most of the facts underlying this action. We begin where they find common agreement, drawing these details from the pleadings. On February 24, 2016, Taiwan Wiggins and Dalante Allison (together, “claimants”) were each at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport for a flight to Orange County, California. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was aware of the claimants’ itineraries and that each had previous felony drug convictions. The DEA observed them at the airport engaging in conversation before they walked together toward the security checkpoint.
As we’ve discussed before, the DEA takes great interest in certain travelers — even going so far as to ask TSA agents to be on the lookout for cash during bag inspections and X-ray screenings. Here, the DEA appeared to hit the jackpot (in more ways than one): traveler with previous convictions and tickets to California. As the multiple law enforcement officers have sworn in multiple court statements, the only reason anyone travels to California is to buy drugs. (Conversely, the only reason to leave California is to go sell the drugs they just purchased.)
The DEA took the cash from the two men, ran a dog past it, and announced the dog said the DEA could keep the money. The government then filed for forfeiture under the theory the money was drug-related. Both men submitted affidavits stating the money was theirs and was seized illegally.
The court took the affidavits and set a date for discovery to see if the men could stake a legal claim to the seized cash; i.e. prove it was legally obtained. The DEA decided to do things out of order. It moved to strike the men’s claims. The district court agreed, finding the men had made nothing but “naked assertions of ownership” — far below the evidentiary standard needed to reclaim the seized cash.
Open-and-shut… or so the DEA thought. The men appealed and the Appeals Court finds the lower court also skipped a step when arriving at its conclusion. As it states during its long discussion of forfeiture proceedings, the lower court shifted the burden of proof to the wrong party at this early stage.
Rule G(5) requires claimants to do no more than identify themselves and state their interest in the property subject to forfeiture. The government, on the contrary, wants claimants to provide additional detail, a position that it attempts to justify as a means to ward off false claims and to give it a starting point to draft its special interrogatories pursuant to Rule G(6). Nowhere in the text of Rule G do we see any support for this approach, and our case law demonstrates why it is not necessary. First, the would-be claimant must demonstrate Article III standing, which, at the pleading stage, necessarily requires that the claimant allege the facts necessary to satisfy Lujan’s “irreducible constitutional minimum of standing.” See Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560. Second, a claimant’s ability to proceed under Rule G, which we have called “statutory standing,” is satisfied through mere compliance with the rule, see Real Props. & Premises, 521 F. App’x at 384, and we see no persuasive reason to import a heightened pleading standard that has no basis in the text. And third, we have held that Rule G’s verification requirement is a built-in preventative measure that limits the danger of false claims. One Men’s Rolex Pearl Master Watch, 357 F. App’x at 627.
As the appeals court points out, the government wants too much too soon, and when it doesn’t get it, it wants to take the money and run. But so far, all the court has to work with are competing allegations about the legality of the cash, and the government doesn’t get to pretend its claim has more value.
Here, where the government alleged that it took a bundle of cash from a claimant’s suitcase, and each claimant stated that he owned the cash, there is a clear allegation of ownership that satisfies Article III. And the claimant’s making of such a statement is what satisfies Rule G’s statutory standing requirement. Therefore, at least at this stage in the litigation, there was no basis on which the district court could strike the claim.
There is no sympathy for the DEA in the Sixth Circuit:
The government sings a sirens’ song about the value of high pleading standards and the benefits it will receive from forcing claimants to support their claims from the outset of a forfeiture proceeding. But all of the government’s arguments rest on flawed assumptions about the procedural rules governing in rem forfeiture cases.
And if the government doesn’t like it, it’s welcome to take it up with… the government.
If Congress wishes to add an additional layer of protection to the statutory requirements by having claimants state their interest with specificity, it may. But a panel of our court is not the proper body to do so.
To close things out, the court points out in detail the wrongness of the government’s position. The government’s assertions suggest inverting what little there is of due process in forfeiture proceedings.
Finally, we note our concern that the government’s approach would turn the burden of proof in forfeiture actions on its head. Under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA), the government bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence that the subject of a civil forfeiture action is, in fact, forfeitable. Requiring a forfeiture claimant to explain the nature of his ownership at the pleading stage would be asking the claimant to satisfy the government’s burden of proof, or at least go a long way toward doing so.
Back the case goes to the lower court with all the correct steps — and a modicum of due process — revived. The government may still be able to retain possession of the seized cash, but it needs to provide at least some evidence it wasn’t legally obtained first.