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United States v. Various Firearms

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

July 2, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
VARIOUS FIREARMS, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION FOR DEFAULT JUDGMENT RE: DKT. NO. 32

          VIRGINIA K. DEMARCHI, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This is an in rem action for civil forfeiture of nine firearms seized after execution of a search warrant at a private residence. Dkt. No. 1. The United States now moves for default judgment. Dkt. No. 32. On May 14, 2019, the Court heard oral argument on the United States' motion. Dkt. No. 37. Having considered the United States' moving papers and arguments at the hearing, the Court grants the United States' motion for default judgment as to one of the grounds for forfeiture asserted, and denies the motion as to the other.

         This Court has jurisdiction over this matter under 28 U.S.C. § 1355, which vests district courts with original jurisdiction in civil forfeiture proceedings.[1] 28 U.S.C. § 1355(a). In addition, this action is properly venued in this district because the defendant property is located in this district, and the acts or omissions giving rise to their forfeiture occurred in this district. Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 3; 28 U.S.C. § 1355 (b)(1).

         I.BACKGROUND

         On May 22, 2018, the United States commenced this action by filing a verified forfeiture complaint against the following property (“the defendant property”):

1) One (1) Colt .38 Super caliber, Government model pistol bearing serial number 2933159;
2) One (1) Colt .38 Super caliber, Custom model pistol bearing serial number ELCEN8536;
3) One (1) Colt .38 Super caliber, Super 38 model pistol bearing serial number 36756;
4) One (1) Colt .38 Super caliber, Commander model pistol bearing serial number 27057-LW;
5) One (1) Colt .38 Super caliber, Government model pistol bearing serial number 38SS05430;
6) One (1) Colt .38 Super caliber, Government model pistol bearing serial number 38SS09144;
7) One (1) Colt .38 Super caliber, Government model pistol bearing serial number 38SS09196;
8) One (1) Colt .38 Super caliber, Government model pistol bearing serial number MHE252; and
9) One (1) Colt .380 caliber, MKIV Mustang model pistol bearing serial number MU24832.

Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 1.

         The United States seized the defendant property on December 20, 2017 pursuant to a federal search warrant issued in conjunction with an investigation into the unlicensed dealing of firearms. See Id. ¶¶ 7, 15-19; see also Dkt. No. 32 at 5. The defendant property was found at a private residence in Salinas, California alleged to be the residence of Oscar Camacho, Jr., along with evidence of drug trafficking, including cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, $12, 951 in cash, and four digital scales. Id. ¶¶ 16, 18. Mr. Camacho, Jr. is a convicted felon. Id. ¶ 9. According the complaint, Mr. Camacho, Jr. obtained the firearms from Carlos Fernandez, a police detective who purchased firearms available only to law enforcement and illegally resold them to private buyers through Ronin Tactical Group (“Ronin Tactical”). Id. ¶¶ 7-11, 12-14. The complaint also alleges that Mr. Camacho, Jr.'s father, Oscar Camacho, Sr., and his brother, Rafael Camacho, acted as straw buyers who purchased firearms from Mr. Fernandez for Mr. Camacho, Jr. Id. ¶¶ 9, 13, 19, 29, 31-33, 35-37, 41.

         In January 2018, a grand jury indicted Mr. Camacho, Jr. for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 831(a)(1) and (b)(1)(B)(ii) and unlawful possession of ammunition by a convicted felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2). Id. ¶ 45; United States v. Camacho, No. 18-cr-00001-BLF, Dkt. No. 7 (Jan. 4, 2018). No trial has been scheduled in that action. The United States asserts that the defendant property is subject to forfeiture pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(d)(1) as firearms possessed by a convicted felon, and pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6) as property constituting or derived from proceeds obtained, directly or indirectly, as a result of distribution or possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. Id. ¶¶ 1, 46-52.

         On June 21, 2018, the United States served via certified mail copies of the complaint, notice of forfeiture action, warrants of arrest of property in rem, and other documents related to this action on Mr. Camacho, Jr. and four other potential claimants (collectively, “the potential claimants”): Oscar Camacho, Sr., Rafael Camacho, Carlos Fernandez, and Rudy Fernandez. Dkt. No. 24. The United States also published a notice of forfeiture action on an official government Internet site (www.forfeiture.gov) for 30 consecutive days beginning on July 28, 2018. Dkt. No. 25. None of the potential claimants nor any other person has filed a claim in this action.

         On January 29, 2019, the United States requested entry of default as to the potential claimants. Dkt. No. 28. The Clerk of the Court entered default against the potential claimants on January 30, 2019.[2] Dkt. No. 29. The United States now seeks entry of default judgment declaring the defendant property forfeited to the United States. Dkt. No. 32.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Forfeiture

         Civil forfeiture proceedings are governed by specific forfeiture statutes, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (18 U.S.C. § 983), the Supplemental Rules for Certain Admiralty and Maritime Claims (“Supplemental Rules”), and this district's Admiralty Local Rules. Because civil forfeiture is generally disfavored due to the limited procedural protections available to property owners, United States v. $191, 910.00 in U.S. Currency, 16 F.3d 1051, 1069 (9th Cir. 1994), the Ninth Circuit requires strict adherence to the procedural rules governing civil forfeiture proceedings. See United States v. Marolf, 173 F.3d 1213, 1217 (9th Cir. 1999) (denying forfeiture where government “erred” by failing to provide due notice to property owner); $191, 910.00 in U.S. Currency, 16 F.3d at 1068-69 (strictly construing currency forfeiture provisions of 19 U.S.C. § 615 against government and holding that “the burden on the government to adhere to procedural rules should be heavier than on claimants”).

         B. Default Judgment

         Pursuant to Rule 55(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a district court may enter default judgment where the Clerk of the Court, pursuant to Rule 55(a), has previously entered default based upon a failure to plead or otherwise defend an action. Fed.R.Civ.P. 55(a). However, entry of default judgment in the plaintiff's favor is not automatic. Aldabe v. Aldabe, 616 F.2d 1089, 1092 (9th Cir. 1980) (noting that the district court's decision on whether to enter default judgment is discretionary).

         In deciding whether to enter default judgment, a court should consider the following factors: (1) the possibility of prejudice to the plaintiff; (2) the merits of the plaintiff's substantive claim; (3) the sufficiency of the complaint; (4) the sum of money at stake in the action; (5) the possibility of a dispute concerning material facts; (6) whether the default was due to excusable neglect; and (7) the strong policy underlying the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure favoring decisions on the merits. Eitel v. McCool, 782 F.2d 1470, 1471-72 (9th Cir. 1986). In considering these factors, all factual ...


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