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United States v. Real Property Located at 3846 Nisenan Lane

August 27, 2009



Pursuant 21 U.S.C. § 881, plaintiff United States of America ("Government") initiated this action for forfeiture of real property located at 3846 Nisenan Lane in Wheatland, California ("defendant property"). Claimant Minerva Campos filed a verified claim of interest, alleging that she owns defendant property in fee simple. (Docket No. 18.) The Government now moves for summary judgment and final judgment of forfeiture.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

On March 24, 2006, law enforcement officers from several federal and state agencies conducted a search of the defendant property pursuant to a state search warrant ("March 2006 search").*fn1 (Pl.'s App'x Ex. D ("Nelson Decl.") ¶ 4.) During that search, law enforcement officers found and seized 465 marijuana plants of various sizes, 524 pounds of processed marijuana in heat-sealed food bags, and sixteen pounds of marijuana seeds. (Id. ¶ 5.) In one of the bedrooms of the house on the defendant property, officers also discovered "a marijuana growing and processing room," in which the windows had been covered in black plastic and fluorescent grow lights and a fan had been installed. (Id. ¶ 6.) The search produced other evidence of drug sales, including pay/owe sheets, a triple beam scale, a Food Saver heat sealer, heat-sealable plastic bags, and over $1000 in U.S. currency. (Id.) A loaded .12 gauge shotgun and .9mm handgun, an unloaded .22 rifle, and various rounds of ammunition were also found during the search. (Id. ¶ 5.)

The evidence seized during the March 2006 search formed the basis of an indictment filed against claimant and Onofre Soto Zuniga--who both resided at the defendant property with their six children (id.)--on April 20, 2006. (See Pl.'s App'x Ex. B.)*fn2 In the criminal action captioned United States v. Onofre Soto Zuniga and Minerva Campos, No. CR. 06-170 WBS, over which the undersigned judge presided, claimant and Zuniga were indicted for manufacturing marijuana plants, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1); possessing a mixture containing a detectable amount of marijuana, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1); and carrying and possessing a shotgun and semi-automatic pistol in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1). (Id.) Zuniga pled guilty to possession with the intent to distribute at least 100 kilograms of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of marijuana and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense. (See Pl.'s App'x Ex. E.) On April 28, 2008, claimant pled guilty to one count of misprison of a felony, 18 U.S.C. § 4, for having knowledge of and concealing the commission of a felony--namely, the possession of at least 100 kilograms of marijuana with the intent to distribute. (Id. Ex. F at 2:19-20; Information (Docket No. 91), United States v. Onofre Soto Zuniga & Minerva Campos, No. CR. 06-170 WBS, at 1:23-25.)

While claimant's criminal case was pending, the Government filed the instant action for civil forfeiture on June 22, 2006. Claimant filed a verified claim of interest on September 18, 2006, asserting that she owns the defendant property, a fact not disputed. (See Docket No. 18; Pl.'s Br. Supp. Summ. J. 2:19-20.) This action was then stayed pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 981(g)(1)-(2) for the duration of claimant's criminal case. (Docket No. 16.)

Following claimant's conviction in that case, the Government filed the instant motion for summary judgment on June 26, 2009, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Claimant did not file an opposition or a statement of non-opposition to the Government's motion, as required by this court's Local Rules. See E.D. Cal. L.R. 78-230(c). Accordingly, at the hearing held on the instant motion on August 17, 2009, even if claimant's attorney had made an appearance, which he did not, he would not have been entitled to be heard in opposition to the motion.*fn3 See id.

II. Discussion

Summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A material fact is one that could affect the outcome of the suit, and a genuine issue is one that could permit a reasonable jury to enter a verdict in the non-moving party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 256. When the moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, "'it must come forward with evidence which would entitle it to a directed verdict if the evidence went uncontroverted at trial.'" Miller v. Glenn Miller Prods., Inc., 454 F.3d 975, 987 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting C.A.R. Transp. Brokerage Co., Inc. v. Darden Rests., Inc., 213 F.3d 474, 480 (9th Cir. 2000)).

Once the moving party carries its initial burden, the nonmoving party "may not rely merely on allegations or denials in its own pleading," but must go beyond the pleadings and, "by affidavits or as otherwise provided in [Rule 56,] set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986); Valandingham v. Bojorquez, 866 F.2d 1135, 1137 (9th Cir. 1989). On those issues for which it will bear the ultimate burden of persuasion at trial, the nonmoving party "must produce evidence to support its claim or defense." Nissan Fire & Marine Ins. Co., Ltd. v. Fritz Cos., Inc., 210 F.3d 1099, 1103 (9th Cir. 2000).

In its inquiry, the court must view any inferences drawn from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). The court also may not engage in credibility determinations or weigh the evidence, for these are jury functions. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.

A. Forfeiture

Under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 ("CAFRA"), in a forfeiture proceeding brought under any civil forfeiture statute, the government must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the property in question is subject to forfeiture. 18 U.S.C. § 983(c)(1); accord United States v. 5208 Los Franciscos Way, 385 F.3d 1187, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). Further, "if the Government's theory of forfeiture is that the property was used to commit or facilitate the commission of a criminal offense, or was involved in the commission of a criminal offense, the Government shall establish that there was a substantial connection between the property and the offense." 18 U.S.C. § 983(c)(3).

Here, the Government contends that the defendant property is subject to forfeiture pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(7), which subjects to forfeiture "[a]ll real property . . . which is used, or intended to be used, in any manner or part, to commit, or to facilitate the commission of, a violation of this subchapter punishable by more than one year's imprisonment." Based on the marijuana stored on the defendant property, Zuniga was convicted under § 841(a)(1) for possession with the intent to distribute at least 100 kilograms of marijuana--a crime punishable by more than a year of imprisonment. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B). The evidence therefore shows that the defendant property was subject to forfeiture under the broad terms of § 881(a)(7). See, e.g., United States v. Real Property Located in Merced County, No. 03-6613, 2008 WL 706599, at *5 (E.D. Cal. Mar. 14, 2008) (Snyder, M.J.) (finding that § 881(a)(7) was satisfied based on the use of the property to store and distribute three pounds of methamphetamine and marijuana). See generally United States v. 6250 Ledge Road, 943 F.2d 721, 725 (7th Cir. 1991) (noting that, under ยง 881(a)(7), the government need "only demonstrate that ...

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