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In re Return of Seized 2000 F-150 Truck

November 13, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jeffrey T. Miller United States District Judge


Following the seizure of a 2000 Ford F-150 truck owned by the movant, Mitchell Margaretich ("Movant"), by federal law enforcement officers, and its subsequent administrative forfeiture by the Drug Enforcement Agency ("DEA"), Movant brings a motion for return of seized property, or in the alternative, to compel filing of a complaint for forfeiture. (Doc. No. 1.)

I. Background

On June 4, 2007, at Campo, California, a 2000 Ford F-150 truck, VIN 1FTRF18WXYNB74239, owned by movant, Mitchell Margaretich ("Movant"), was subjected to a traffic stop by federal law enforcement officers. (Resp't Opp. at 1.) The vehicle was seized for forfeiture by the officers following the discovery of a large quantity of marijuana in a compartment in the bed of the pick-up truck. (Movant's Mem. P. & A. at 1 ("Mem."); Resp't Opp. at 1.)

On July 10, 2007, the DEA sent Movant a Notice of Seizure advising him of his right to contest the forfeiture in federal district court and providing directions on how to file a claim. (Mem., Ex. A.) The Notice advised a valid claim under 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(2)(C) must: 1) identify the specific property being claimed; 2) state the claimant's interest in such property; and 3) be made under oath, subject to penalty of perjury. (Mem., Ex. A.) Movant timely filed a "claim" on August 13, 2007 (Mem., Ex. B), but the DEA rejected the claim as deficient for failing to state Movant's interest in the property and failing to state the information was provided under oath subject to penalty of perjury. (Mem. at 1-2, Ex. C.) In its rejection letter, dated August 22, 2007, DEA, "as a matter of discretion," gave Movant twenty additional days "from the date of [his] receipt of this letter" to perfect his claim. (Mem., Ex. C.)

When the DEA rejection letter was received on August 28, 2007 at Movant's Laguna Niguel home, he was out of state and his wife signed for the letter. (Mem. at 2:2-3.) The twenty-day deadline was September 17, 2007, but Movant did not return home until September 18, 2007. (Mem. at 2:3). One day later, Movant sent additional documentation to DEA to satisfy the claim requirements, as well as hotel receipts showing his absence from the state. (Mem. at 2:3-8, Ex. D.) The letter was received by DEA on September 21, 2007. (Resp't Opp. at 5:23-24.)

On October 1, 2007, DEA rejected Movant's second claim attempt as untimely, but informed Movant his submission would be considered as a Petition for Remission or Mitigation of Forfeiture. (Mem., Ex. E.) Movant was advised the review process could take 120 days or longer and he was given thirty days to submit additional evidence in support of the petition. (Mem., Ex. E.) Movant provided no further information during this period. (Resp't Opp. at 6). On October 18, 2007, DEA administratively forfeited the asset. (Mem., Ex. H.)

On May 1, 2008, six months later, Movant's newly-retained counsel did submit additional correspondence regarding the Petition. (Mem., Ex. F.) In the interim, Movant's criminal case had been dismissed for lack of probable cause for his initial traffic stop. (Mem., Ex. F.) Movant therefore argued the seizure and forfeiture were unlawful under the Fourth Amendment and violated his Eighth Amendment rights as excessive punishment. (Mem., Ex. F.) In a response dated July 9, 2008, DEA reviewed the record, noting any constitutional challenges to the seizure were precluded by Movant's failure to bring a timely valid claim. (Mem., Ex. H.) Even so, DEA addressed the Eighth Amendment issue and concluded the administrative forfeiture was proportional to and substantially connected with Movant's offense.*fn1 (Mem., Ex. H.) Finally, DEA considered Movant's Petition for Remission or Mitigation and determined the petition did not meet the minimum conditions since Movant did not adequately demonstrate any mitigating factors to justify relief from forfeiture. (Mem., Ex. H.) Pursuant to 18 C.F.R. § 9.3(j), Movant requested a reconsideration of the petition decision on July 28, 2008 (Mem., Ex. I), which was denied by DEA on August 15, 2008 (Mem., Ex. J).

II. Discussion

Movant makes several arguments in support of his motion: 1) Movant's initial "claim" satisfied the requirements of 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(2)(C); 2) Movant's corrected claim was timely filed; 3) in light of Movant's timely, valid claim, the government failed to timely file a complaint for forfeiture under 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(3)(A) such that the property must be released under 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(3)(B); and, alternatively, 4) the court should exercise its discretion to compel the government to file a complaint for forfeiture, allowing forfeiture to be decided on the merits.

A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction and Legal Standards

Movant's submission is styled as a "motion for return of seized property," which the court interprets as a motion under Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(g). Pursuant to that procedural rule, once criminal proceedings have ended, one subject to an unlawful federal search and seizure may move for the return of the property in the district court for the district in which the property was seized. Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(g). However, a "motion for return of property...may be denied if the [former criminal defendant] is not entitled to lawful possession of the seized property, the property is contraband or subject to forfeiture ...." U.S. v. Van Cauwenberghe, 934 F.2d 1048, 1061 (9th Cir. 1991); see also U.S. v. Martinson, 809 F.2d 1364, 1369 (9th Cir. 1987). "[C]courts may rightfully refuse to return claimed property when...the property involved is forfeit pursuant to statute...." U.S. v. Farrell, 606 F.2d 1341, 1347 (C.A.D.C. 1979). Resolution of the motion therefore coalesces with the motion to set aside the forfeiture, as both questions center on whether Movant's property was the subject of a constitutionally valid administrative forfeiture.

The administrative forfeiture process is governed by the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, 18 U.S.C. § 983 ("CAFRA"). Generally, a district court has jurisdiction over forfeiture proceedings only when a noticed party files a timely claim pursuant to § 983(a), or where an interested party who never receives notice moves to set aside the forfeiture as described in § 983(e). Section 983(e) provides the "exclusive remedy for seeking to set aside a declaration of forfeiture under a civil forfeiture statute." 18 U.S.C. § 983(e)(5). Thus, once administrative proceedings are complete, district courts lack jurisdiction to review the merits of the action, and may only review to determine whether due ...

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