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United States v. $209

United States District Court, N.D. California

December 8, 2014



SAMUEL CONTI, District Judge.


Now before the Court are several motions in this civil forfeiture case. First, Claimant Julio Figueroa moves to suppress evidence seized during his interaction with Drug Enforcement Agency ("DEA") Agents at the San Francisco International Airport ("SFO"). ECF No. 18 ("Mot. to Suppress"). Second, the Government moves for summary judgment, alleging Figueroa, "will be unable to adduce sufficient evidence to establish any affirmative defense, " and, alternatively, lacks standing to contest the forfeiture. ECF No. 56 ("SJ Mot."). Finally, the Government moves to strike Figueroa's claim and for entry of default judgment for Figueroa's failure adequately to respond to special interrogatories. ECF No. 59 ("Mot. to Strike"), as amended ECF No. 62 ("Am. Mot. to Strike). These motions are fully briefed.[1] The Court conducted an evidentiary hearing on the motion to suppress and heard oral argument on the motion. ECF No. 78 ("Hr'g Tr."). The remaining motions are appropriate for resolution without oral argument under Civil Local Rule 7-1(b). As explained below the motions are all DENIED.


A. Findings of Fact on Motion to Suppress

The Court finds the following facts after the testimony of three witnesses at the evidentiary hearing: DEA Special Agents Leo Bondad and Paul Harris (collectively, "the Agents"), and Figueroa, as well as exhibits received at that hearing and other documents submitted in support of the motion.

This is a civil forfeiture case arising out of $209, 815 in United States currency ("the Currency") seized from Claimant's checked luggage at the SFO. The currency was uncovered during the course of a DEA interdiction involving Figueroa, a DEA Confidential Source, and five DEA Agents: Bondad, Harris, Boston Special Agent David O'Neill, San Francisco Group Supervisor Aaron Jenkins, and Task Force Agent Kevin O'Malley.

The investigation began with a tip by a confidential source that Figueroa had purchased a one-way ticket from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport ("JFK") to SFO that night, and that Figueroa would arrive in SFO the next day with two checked bags. Further investigation revealed that the phone number used to book the ticket was connected in the DEA's Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Information System ("NADDIS") to multiple marijuana trafficking investigations and that Figueroa had a prior arrest for narcotics possession. In order to identify Figueroa after leaving his flight, the Agents reviewed the photo associated with his California ID Card.

Before Figueroa's flight arrived, the Agents, dressed in street clothes, began surveillance of the gate. After Figueroa deplaned, the Agents surreptitiously followed him and observed him remove two large suitcases from the baggage carousel and begin walking toward the elevator. The Agents took the escalator to the second floor near where Figueroa would exit the elevator. One agent, Bondad, stood to the side of the elevator doors while the other, Harris, stood approximately 15 feet away from the elevators across an area of high pedestrian traffic. Neither Agent's position blocked Figueroa's most direct path to the terminal exit.

After Figueroa stepped off the elevator, Agent Bondad called out "Julio?" Figueroa turned, but did not respond immediately and continued walking toward the exit. Agent Bondad repeated "Are you Julio?" and, in the same motion, showed his DEA credentials. Figueroa stopped and responded "No." Agent Bondad asked if Figueroa had identification, and Figueroa gave Agent Bondad his California ID card. Seeing that Figueroa's first name was, in fact, Julio, Bondad said "You are Julio. Why did you lie about your name?" and returned the ID card. Figueroa responded that he said "no" because he did not recognize Agent Bondad. Bondad then explained that he was a DEA agent, and told Figueroa he "wasn't in trouble" and was free to leave. Bondad stated that they were looking for people trafficking "dope" and asked Figueroa if he was carrying any narcotics or contraband with him. After Figueroa said no, Bondad asked, pointing out Agent Harris (who also displayed his DEA credentials), "would you mind if we search your bags?" Figueroa agreed, and Harris moved closer as Figueroa handed him one of the bags. Harris moved the bag to another public area of the terminal roughly 10 feet away with less pedestrian traffic. After kneeling down next to the bags, Harris noticed they were locked and asked Figueroa for the combination to unlock the bags. Figueroa gave the agents the combination, and upon unlocking the bags and searching the contents, the Agents discovered and seized the Currency, which was bundled in two backpacks inside each of Figueroa's bags.

At no time during the encounter was Figueroa advised of his right to decline consent to search. He was, however, told at the beginning of the encounter that he was free to leave. The Agents did not advise Figueroa that they would seek a warrant if he declined consent. It was uncontroverted that Figueroa and the Agents remained calm throughout the encounter, no guns were drawn, Figueroa was never told he was under arrest, and no Miranda warnings were given.

B. Additional Background

The remaining facts come from the parties' submissions and in some cases remain in dispute.

After seizing the Currency, the Agents questioned Figueroa. Both parties agree Figueroa said "we can cut the chit chat now, " and that "I didn't say [the Currency] was mine" but also that "I didn't say that [the Currency] wasn't mine, " although they disagree about what Figueroa meant to communicate by these statements. Compare ECF No. 57-1 ("Figueroa Decl.") at ¶ 5, with SJ Mot. at 3, ¶ 9. Similarly, the parties disagree about the Agents' claim that during the search, Figueroa only asserted ownership over a bundle of a few thousand dollars wrapped in a deposit slip. Compare Figueroa Decl. at ¶ 6, with SJ Mot. at 3, ¶ 9.

Following the seizure of the currency, obtaining the Figueroa's contact information, and explaining the civil forfeiture process, the Figueroa left the airport. The Agents determined that the Currency consisted of 13, 644 bills, 13, 554 of which were in denominations of $20 or less. After placing the Currency in evidence bags and hiding it in an inconspicuous location, a trained narcotics dog, Jackson, altered that the Currency smelled of illegal drugs.

Subsequently, the Government filed a complaint for civil forfeiture under 21 U.S.C. Section 983 arguing that the Currency is forfeitable as "proceeds traceable" to the sale of illegal drugs. 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6). Figueroa intervened, filing a verified claim and answer required under the statute and asserting "an ownership and possessory interest in, and the right to exercise dominion and control over, all the defendant property." ECF Nos. 11 ("Claim"), 14 ("Answer").

Shortly thereafter, the Government served special interrogatories under the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions ("Supplemental Rules") "to gather information that bears on the claimant's standing." Advisory Committee Note to Subd. 6 of Supp. R. G; see also Supp. R. G(6). Figueroa objected to the scope of these interrogatories, and the Government filed a motion to compel, which the Court granted. ECF No. 48 ("Mot. to Compel Order"). Relying chiefly on the Ninth Circuit's decision in United States v. $133, 420, 672 F.3d 629 (9th Cir. 2012), the Court found that Figueroa's objections were unfounded, and his responses were insufficient, and ordered supplemental answers.

After Figueroa supplemented his answers, the Government moved to strike Figueroa's verified claim for failure to adequately respond to interrogatories. Mot. to Strike at 1; see also Supp. R. G(8)(c)(i)(A) (authorizing motions to strike for failure to answer special interrogatories). Following the Government's motion to strike, Figueroa once again supplemented his answers, although the Government argues they are still insufficient. Figueroa opposes the motion, reiterating his contention that the interrogatories exceed the scope permitted by the Supplemental Rules and arguing that, in any event, they are sufficient.

Finally, the Government has also moved for summary judgment on the forfeitability of the currency, the sufficiency of Figueroa's affirmative defenses, and Figueroa's alleged inability to show standing to contest the forfeiture. Figueroa opposes.


A. Motion to Suppress

The Fourth Amendment ordinarily bars the admission of evidence seized as fruit of an illegal search. Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431, 441-42 (1984). This rule also applies in civil forfeiture proceedings. See One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Pennsylvania, 380 U.S. 693, (1965); United States v. $186, 416, 590 F.3d 942, 949 (9th Cir. 2010) ("The Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule applies to civil forfeiture proceedings."). Further, Rule G(8)(a) of the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions ("Supplemental Rules") permits a ...

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