On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania D.C. Civil Action No. 92-cv-00312E (Honorable Maurice B. Cohill, Jr.)
Before: Becker, Chief Judge, Scirica
and McKEE, Circuit Judges
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scirica, Circuit Judge
Argued September 17, 2002
This case involves an administrative forfeiture proceeding of a motor vehicle allegedly used in certain drug transactions. The pro se prisoner's claim of ownership was dismissed as untimely. At issue is whether to apply the prison mailbox rule.
On August 30, 1990, federal authorities arrested William Longenette on drug-related charges. One day later, special agents of the FBI seized his 1985 Dodge B250 Custom Van, under § 881 of the Controlled Substances Act. 21 U.S.C. § 881. The government initiated administrative forfeiture proceedings against Longenette's van on March 27, 1992, advising him to "file a claim of ownership and a bond . . . by May 12, 1992" to contest the forfeiture. *fn1 Longenette did not receive the initial notice immediately since it was mailed to an incorrect prison location. On April 16, Longenette claimed ownership of the van in a letter to the FBI. Longenette also asserted an inability to post the mandatory bond and requested an in forma pauperis declaration to provide in lieu of the bond.
The FBI mailed Longenette an in forma pauperis form on April 17, responding to a separate request from Longenette's former attorney, who had received a copy of the initial notice. The FBI's letter accompanying the form provided a deadline extension and directed Longenette to "return" the form to the FBI by May 29. The record does not indicate when Longenette received the IFP form. On May 27, he handed the completed form to prison authorities for mailing to the FBI, but wrote the date of May 9 next to his signature. The FBI did not receive the form until June 2, four days after the May 29 deadline. On July 6, the FBI sent a letter to Longenette advising him that his bond was untimely and that the administrative forfeiture proceedings would continue.
On September 15, 1992, Longenette filed suit to contest the administrative forfeiture. On June 6, 1994, the District Court dismissed Longenette's claim based on lack of jurisdiction and insufficient service of process. On November 9, 1995, we reversed, finding jurisdiction on due process grounds, and remanded for further consideration. Longenette v. Krusing et al, No. 94-3321 (3d Cir. filed Aug. 25, 1995) (table). On September 26, 2000, after several delays in securing counsel for Longenette, the District Court granted the government's motion for summary judgment. *fn2 Longenette filed a timely appeal. *fn3
The Controlled Substances Act permits seizures and subsequent forfeitures of motor vehicles used to facilitate the transportation, sale, receipt, possession, or concealment of illegal drugs. 21 U.S.C. § 881(a). For seized property valued less than $500,000, the Act and accompanying regulations authorize civil forfeiture through an administrative action rather than through a judicial proceeding. Id.; see also 21 C.F.R. § 1316.77(b).
An administrative forfeiture proceeding requires the FBI or DEA, whichever is relevant, to notify any person with an interest in the property. 21 C.F.R. § 1316.77. The government accomplishes notification by sending a letter via certified mail to the person's last known address and by advertising a notice of forfeiture in a local publication on three separate occasions. See 19 U.S.C. § 1607(a); 21 C.F.R. § 1316.75(a). Any person claiming ownership has twenty days in which to file a claim stating his interest "with the appropriate customs officer." 19 U.S.C. § 1608. The individual also must provide a bond "to the United States" to cover the costs and expenses of judicial proceedings. Id. Individuals who cannot afford to post a bond may file an in forma pauperis declaration. 19 C.F.R. § 162.47(e). Once an individual properly contests the administrative forfeiture, the matter automatically is forwarded to the courts for judicial proceedings. *fn4 19 U.S.C. §§ 1608, 1610; 21 C.F.R. §§ 1316.76(b), 1316.78.
Here, the government initiated administrative forfeiture proceedings against Longenette's van on March 27, 1992. Longenette filed his ownership claim on April 16 and requested IFP status. By letter of April 17, the FBI forwarded an IFP form to Longenette and provided a "return" deadline of May 29, 1992. Longenette submitted his completed IFP form to federal prison authorities on May 27, but the FBI did not receive the form until June 2. The timeliness of Longenette's submission, therefore, depends on the application of the prison mailbox rule.
Nearly fifteen years ago, the Supreme Court promulgated the prison mailbox rule. Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266 (1988). Houston involved a pro se prisoner's appeal of a district court's denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The prisoner gave a notice of appeal to prison authorities on the twenty-seventh day following the district court's judgment. But the district court did not receive the filing until the thirty-first day, one day beyond the permitted period. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit dismissed the appeal because the prisoner had filed it outside of the permitted thirty days.
The Supreme Court reversed, crafting a prison mailbox rule whereby the date on which a prisoner transmitted documents to prison authorities would be considered the actual filing date. The Court designed the rule specifically for pro se prisoners. Id. at 275 ("[A] pro se prisoner has no choice but to hand his notice over to prison authorities for forwarding to the court clerk."). The Court cited several policy considerations for its decision: a pro se prisoner may only communicate with the district court through prison authorities; a tardy prisoner is not free to "walk" papers to the district court; and the prevention of an intentional delay in transmission by prison authorities. Id. at 274. The Court also noted ...