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Ramirez v. Tulare County District Attorney's Office

California Court of Appeals, Fifth District

March 15, 2017

TRINIDAD RAMIREZ et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
TULARE COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE et al., Defendants and Respondents. KHAMFONG CHAMPAHEUANG et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
TULARE COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE et al., Defendants and Respondents. RICHARD SANCHEZ et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
TULARE COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE et al., Defendants and Respondents.

         APPEALS from judgments of the Superior Court of Tulare County Nos. VCU256099, VCU255956, VCU255959. Melinda M. Reed, Judge.

          Mark T. Clausen for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

          Kathleen Bales Lange, County Counsel, and Kevin A. Stimmel, Deputy County Counsel for Defendants and Respondents County of Tulare et al.

          McCormick, Kabot, Jenner & Lew and Nancy A. Jenner for Defendants and Respondents City of Porterville and Porterville Police Department.

          Tuttle & McCloskey, Daniel T. McCloskey and James F. McBrearty for Defendants and Respondents City of Dinuba and Dinuba Police Department.

          Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, Douglas J. Woods, Assistant Attorney General, Marc A. LeForestier and John W. Killeen, Deputy Attorneys General, for Defendant and Respondent State of California.

          OPINION

          KANE, J.

         Under California law, property connected with certain unlawful drug activity may be subject to forfeiture to the state or local government (Health & Saf. Code, §§ 11469-11495, the forfeiture statutes).[1] The law is intended to be “remedial by removing the tools and profits from those engaged in the illicit drug trade.” (§ 11469, subd. (j).) Nonetheless, because forfeiture is disfavored, the forfeiture statutes are strictly construed in favor of the person against whom forfeiture is sought, and procedural requirements set forth in the forfeiture statutes must be fully satisfied by the agency pursuing that remedy. (See Cuevas v. Superior Court (2013) 221 Cal.App.4th 1312, 1322-1331 (Cuevas).

         Here, in three related actions[2] filed in the trial court, separate plaintiffs sought the return of their seized property (collectively plaintiffs)[3] on the ground that government agencies purportedly conducting forfeiture proceedings (collectively defendants)[4] failed to comply with the statutory requirements for nonjudicial forfeiture. In each action, the respective plaintiffs filed a petition for writ of mandate in the trial court alleging that the property seized by law enforcement officers must be returned to said plaintiffs because, among other things, no forfeiture proceedings were ever initiated by prosecutors, as specifically required by the forfeiture statutes. (See § 11488.4, subd. (j).) Instead, according to the petitions, local police officers attempted to initiate the nonjudicial forfeiture proceedings on their own, a practice that we recently held would render the forfeiture proceedings “invalid in the first instance.” (Cuevas, supra, 221 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1327, 1331.) In short, plaintiffs alleged that because no valid forfeiture proceedings were ever initiated, and the time for doing so had expired, plaintiffs' personal property must be returned.

         In response to the petitions for writ of mandate, defendants in each case filed general demurrers challenging the sufficiency of the pleadings on three fundamental grounds: (i) failure to exhaust administrative remedies; (ii) failure to comply with the Government Claims Act (Gov. Code, § 810 et seq.); and (iii) expiration of the statute of limitations. The trial court agreed with the statute of limitations argument, concluding that a one-year statute of limitations was applicable. The demurrers were sustained on that ground, without leave to amend, and judgments of dismissal were entered in each case. In this consolidated appeal, plaintiffs contend that the trial court should have overruled the demurrers in their entirety. As more fully explained in the discussion portion of this opinion, we believe plaintiffs are correct. Accordingly, we reverse the judgments below, with instructions that the trial court enter new orders overruling defendants' demurrers in each of the consolidated actions.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The Pleadings in the Trial Court

         We begin by summarizing the relevant pleadings[5] filed in the trial court in the three separate cases from which appeals have been taken (i.e., cases Nos. F071223 [lead case], F071324, and F071872), and which have been consolidated for purposes of this opinion.

         The Ramirez case (case No. F071223)

         Ramirez et al. v. Tulare County District Attorney's Office et al. was originally filed in Tulare County Superior Court on April 28, 2014 (Super. Ct. Tulare County, 2014, No. 256099), by plaintiffs Trinidad Ramirez and Elgio Perez. A first amended complaint/petition for writ of mandate (petition) was filed by said plaintiffs on July 23, 2014, which was the operative pleading at the time of the demurrer. Defendants named therein included Tulare County District Attorney's Office, Tulare County Sheriff's Office, County of Tulare and State of California.

         According to the petition, in January 2011, Tulare County Sheriff's deputies lawfully seized $1, 420 in cash from plaintiff Ramirez based on an alleged violation of section 11378 (possession of controlled substance for purpose of sale). Immediately following the seizure, Tulare County Sheriff's Deputy G. Bonilla issued Ramirez a receipt[6] for the seized property and “contemporaneously issued ‘Notice of Nonjudicial Forfeiture Proceedings' (Notice) under the ostensible authority of section 11488.4, subdivision (j).” Bonilla signed the receipt and notice, copies of which were attached to the petition. Allegedly, “No one employed by the [Tulare County District Attorney's Office] signed the notice or reviewed the facts and evidence related to the seizure of the property prior to Officer Bonilla's execution of the Notice, as required by section 11488.4.” It was conceded in the petition that Ramirez did not file a claim opposing forfeiture within 30 days of service of the notice. Months later, on July 26, 2011, the Tulare County District Attorney issued a final declaration of “administrative” (or nonjudicial)[7] forfeiture of the subject property, declaring that the $1, 420 in cash was forfeited to the state for distribution in accordance with section 11489.[8]

         Similarly, on November 1, 2012, Tulare County Sheriff's deputies allegedly lawfully seized $1, 698 in cash from plaintiff Perez based on an alleged violation of section 11359 (possession of marijuana for purpose of sale). Immediately following the seizure, Tulare County Sheriff's Deputy Van Curen issued Perez a receipt for the property “and contemporaneously issued Notice of non-judicial forfeiture proceedings under the ostensible authority of subdivision (j) of section 11488.4.” Van Curen signed the receipt and notice, copies of which were attached to the petition. As with Ramirez, in Perez's case “[n]o one employed by the [Tulare County District Attorney's Office] signed the Notice or reviewed the facts and evidence prior to Van Curen's execution of the Notice” of nonjudicial forfeiture proceedings. (Italics added.) The petition admitted that Perez did not file a claim opposing forfeiture within 30 days after service of the notice. Several months later, on May 1, 2013, the Tulare County District Attorney issued a declaration of administrative (i.e., nonjudicial) forfeiture of the subject property, formally declaring that the $1, 698 in cash was forfeited to the state for distribution in accordance with section 11489.

         According to the petition, the administrative forfeiture proceedings were allegedly invalid from their inception, based on our decision in Cuevas, supra, 221 Cal.App.4th 1312, since the forfeiture proceedings were initiated by police officers or sheriff's deputies, rather than by the district attorney or Attorney General, as the forfeiture statutes plainly require.[9] As a result, a duty allegedly existed to return the property to plaintiffs. Among other things, the prayer for relief requested that the trial court issue a “writ of mandate … which declares invalid and void the notices and declarations of administrative forfeiture issued by [defendants] for the property of [plaintiffs] … and which … [¶] [c]ompels [defendants] to return the property, or, if [defendants] are not able to do so, to pay equitable compensation of equal value in accordance with Minsky [v. City of Los Angeles (1974) 11 Cal.3d 113 (Minsky)].…”

         The Champaheuang case (case No. F071324)

         Champaheuang v. Porterville Police Department, et al. was originally filed in the trial court on April 15, 2014 (Super. Ct. Tulare County, 2014, No. 255956), entitled “Petition for Writ of Mandate to Compel Return of Seized Property.” It set forth the claims of plaintiffs Khamfong Champeheuang, Phoxay Champaheuang and Phaxay Champaheuang. At the time of the dispositive demurrers, the operative pleading was the second amended petition for writ of mandate (petition), filed on November 7, 2014. Named as defendants were Porterville Police Department, City of Porterville, Tulare County District Attorney's Office, County of Tulare, and State of California.

         According to the petition, on October 26, 2011, Porterville Police officers lawfully seized from the Champaheuangs a total of $16, 000 in cash, a 2004 Toyota pickup truck, and a 2005 Lexus 4-door vehicle. Immediately following the seizure, Officer R. Meier, a police officer with the Porterville Police Department, issued to each of the Champaheuangs a separate receipt for the seizure of property subject to forfeiture (Receipt). At the same time, Meier allegedly also issued a “Notice of Intended Forfeiture Pursuant to … Section 11488.4 (Notice) to each of the Champaheuangs under the ostensible authority of subdivision (j) of section 11488.4.” As alleged in the petition, “[t]he Notice was not initiated by the district attorney or Attorney General as required by section 11488.4.” Among other things, the notice advised the Champaheuangs that if they desired to contest the forfeiture of the property, a claim would have to be filed within 30 days after receipt of the notice. It was conceded in the petition that no claim opposing forfeiture was filed. Subsequently, on May 10, 2012, the district attorney allegedly executed a declaration of administrative forfeiture pursuant to subdivision (j) of section 11488.4, declaring that the $16, 000 in cash, the Toyota pickup and the Lexus 4-door vehicle were forfeited to the state for distribution in accordance with section 11489.

         The petition by the Champaheuangs sought a writ of mandate compelling the return of their property on the ground that the forfeiture proceedings were invalid from the outset pursuant to our decision in Cuevas, supra, 221 Cal.App.4th 1312, because police officers had initiated the nonjudicial forefeiture proceedings, rather than prosecutors, as required by the forfeiture statutes. In the event that the property cannot be returned by defendants, the petition requested alternatively that plaintiffs be compensated in equity for the value of the property, “in accordance with Minsky, supra, 11 Cal.3d 113.…” (Fn. omitted.)

         The Sanchez case (case No. F071872)

         Sanchez et al. v. Dinuba Police Department et al. was originally filed in the trial court on April 15, 2014 (Super. Ct. Tulare County, 2014, No. 255959). A first amended complaint/petition for writ of mandate (petition) was filed on July 24, 2014, and was the operative pleading at the time of the demurrers. Plaintiffs were Richard Sanchez, Frank Carlos, Jose Olivares and David Yama.[10] Defendants were Dinuba Police Department, City of Dinuba, Tulare County District Attorney's Office, County of Tulare and State of California.

         According to the petition, on November 9, 2010, Officer Lopez of the Dinuba Police Department lawfully seized $7, 040 in cash and a 2006 Chevrolet pickup truck from plaintiffs Sanchez and Carlos based on their alleged involvement in narcotics activity. Lopez executed and served separate receipts to Sanchez and Carlos, along with “Notices” purporting to initiate nonjudicial forfeiture proceedings. As with the other incidents, allegedly “[n]o one from the District Attorney or Attorney General's Office signed the Notices, ” and “Lopez did not contact the District Attorney or Attorney General before initiating administrative forfeiture proceedings and issuing and executing the Notices.” Subsequently, on April 26, 2011, the district attorney executed a declaration of administrative forfeiture pursuant to subdivision (j) of section 11488.4, formally declaring the $7, 040 in cash and the Chevrolet pickup truck to be forfeited to the state for distribution in accordance with section 11489.

         On March 30, 2011, Officer J. Ayala with the Dinuba Police Department allegedly lawfully seized $2, 099 in cash from plaintiff Olivares based on alleged involvement in narcotics activity. As in the other cases herein, a receipt was issued by Ayala to plaintiff Olivares along with a notice purporting to initiate nonjudicial forfeiture proceedings. No claim was filed by Olivares within 30 days after service of the notice. On October 5, 2011, the district attorney executed a declaration of administrative forfeiture pursuant to subdivision (j) of section 11488.4, declaring that the $2, 099 in cash was forfeited to the state for distribution per section 11489.

         The petition by plaintiffs Sanchez, Carlos, and Olivares sought the issuance of a writ of mandate by the trial court compelling the return of the seized property, based on plaintiffs' contention that the forfeiture proceedings were invalid at their inception pursuant to our decision in Cuevas, supra, 221 Cal.App.4th 1312, because police officers had initiated the nonjudicial forefeiture proceedings, rather than prosecutors. In the event defendants were unable to return the property, the petition requested in the alternative that plaintiffs be compensated in equity for the value of the property, “in accordance with Minsky.…”

         The Demurrer Rulings

         In the Ramirez case, demurrers were filed by defendants (including County of Tulare, Tulare County District Attorney's Office, Tulare County Sheriff's Office, and State of California) to the petition filed therein. Defendants' demurrers challenged the sufficiency of the petition to state a cause of action for writ of mandate on several distinct grounds, including that (i) plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies by their failure to file claims opposing forfeiture under sections 11488.4 and 11488.5; (ii) plaintiffs failed to file a government claim for damages under the Government Claims Act; and (iii) plaintiffs' actions were untimely because a one-year statute of limitations was applicable under Code of Civil Procedure section 340. Following oral argument on the demurrers on December 15, 2014, the trial court issued an order sustaining the demurrer in part and overruling it in part.

         In its ruling on the demurrer in Ramirez, the trial court rejected defendants' contention that the failure by plaintiffs Ramirez and Perez to submit claims opposing forfeiture (under §§ 11488.4 & 11488.5) constituted failure to exhaust administrative remedies. In so holding, the trial court expressly relied on our decision in Cuevas that a nonjudicial forfeiture proceeding initiated by police officers was “invalid in the first instance” and, consequently, “there was no proper or valid forfeiture proceeding to which [the plaintiff] could make a claim.” (Cuevas, supra, 221 Cal.App.4th at p. 1327.) Thus, the trial court concluded plaintiffs were not barred on the ground that they failed to file timely claims under sections 11488.4 and 11488.5.

         Next, the trial court's ruling rejected defendants' argument that plaintiffs' petition was barred due to their failure to file a claim for damages under the Government Claims Act. The trial court explained that plaintiffs were not making a claim for money or damages under Government Code section 905, but were “seeking return of their property.” As such, plaintiffs were not required to submit a government claim to defendants. The trial court further observed that the case of Minsky, supra, 11 Cal.3d at page 124 was controlling on this issue, since Minsky held “‘that (a) complaint, seeking the recovery of property seized and wrongfully withheld by (the governmental) defendants does not involve a claim for “money or damages” within the meaning of [Government Code] section 905.'”

         Lastly, the trial court addressed the statute of limitations arguments. The main question to be decided by the trial court was whether the applicable statute of limitations for plaintiffs' claims was Code of Civil Procedure section 338, subdivision (c), which provides a three-year statute of limitations period with respect to actions for “the specific recovery of personal property, ” or Code of Civil Procedure section 340, subdivisions (a) and (b), which provides a one-year statute of limitations period for “[a]n action upon a statute for a penalty or forfeiture.” A secondary issue was whether the statutory period would run from the date of seizure of the property, as argued by defendants, or from the date of the declaration of forfeiture of the property, as argued by plaintiffs. In its demurrer ruling, the trial court concluded that the one-year statute of limitations (i.e., Code Civ. Proc., § 340) was applicable, and it further held that the limitations period would run from the date of seizure of the property. Based on these conclusions, the trial court found that plaintiffs' claims were time-barred. The demurrers to the petition were sustained without leave to amend and judgment of dismissal was entered.

         On January 5, 2015, the trial court issued an identical ruling on the demurrers in the Sanchez case. Defendants in Sanchez, including City of Dinuba, Dinuba Police Department, County of Tulare, Tulare County District Attorney's Office and State of California, had raised the same issues on demurrer as were presented by defendants in the Ramirez case. The trial court held in the Sanchez case that (i) plaintiffs were excused from exhausting the claim requirement in the forfeiture statutes based on our holding in Cuevas, supra, 221 Cal.App.4th 1312; (ii) the Government Claims Act did not apply since plaintiffs were seeking the return of specific property, not damages; but (iii) plaintiffs' claims were barred by the one-year statute of limitations under Code of Civil Procedure section 340. Therefore, the demurrers by defendants in the Sanchez case were sustained based on the statute of limitations without leave to amend and a dismissal judgment was entered by the trial court.

         On January 13, 2015, all parties in the Champaheuang case submitted a stipulation and proposed order for the trial court to sustain the demurrers therein on the same grounds as in the Ramirez and Sanchez cases, after which a dismissal judgment would be entered. Demurrers had been filed by defendants City of Porterville, Porterville Police Department, County of Tulare, Tulare County District Attorney's Office, and State of California. The trial court approved the stipulation, and entered an identical ruling on demurrer as in the prior cases. The trial court ...


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