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United States v. $39

February 9, 2010

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA PLAINTIFF,
v.
$39,557.00, MORE OR LESS, IN UNITED STATES CURRENCY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Joseph H. Rodriguez, United States District Judge

OPINION

Presently before the Court is a Motion to Strike the claim of potential claimant Richard Harold ("Harold"). The United States of America (the "Government") argues that Harold's claim to the money should be struck because Harold: (1) lacks statutory standing because he failed to comply with 18 U.S.C. § 983 (a)(4)(A) and Supplemental Rule G(5)(a)(I); (2) lacks statutory standing because he failed to comply with Supplemental Rule G(6)(b) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 33(b)(3) and; (3) lacks both Article III and prudential standing.

A hearing on the issue of standing was held on July 16, 2009 at which time witnesses were presented, including the potential claimant Richard Harold. Following the hearing, the parties were given a briefing schedule and this motion by the Government followed. A second hearing was held on January 25, 2010 on the merits of the present motion. The parties agreed at that time that should the Court find that Harold has standing to make a claim, the parties would like a decision on the ultimate issue of the claim. The parties also agreed that they have presented all of the relevant information for the Court to make such a determination and they both waived the opportunity to present additional evidence for the Court's consideration. Having considered the written submissions of the parties and the arguments and testimony presented at both hearings, for the reasons that follow, the Government's motion to strike is granted.

I. Background

The facts of this case are relatively straightforward and can be summarized as follows. On July 27, 2006, Harold was a passenger in a vehicle that was proceeding southward on Route 55 in Mantua, New Jersey. The vehicle, a 2000 Gray Ford Windstar, was being driven by George A. Gardner ("Gardner"). Compl. at ¶7. Patrolman Douglas Herner ("Herner") of the Mantua Police Department initiated a traffic stop of the vehicle because the van was allegedly traveling above the speed limit and did not appear to have a registration sticker. Id. During the course of the traffic stop, Herner alleges that he detected a "strong odor of burnt marijuana emanating from inside the van and noticed marijuana buds on the lap of defendant in interest Richard Harold." Id. at ¶¶ 8 -9. A review of the DVD memorializing the traffic stop confirms that Herner stated that he smelled marijuana and that he observed what he believed to be ashes or "buds" on Harold's lap. See DVD at 0:41.

Herner questioned both occupants and performed a frisk search. Compl. at ¶¶ 9-11. The search of Gardner yielded $4000.00 in United States currency wrapped in black rubber bands. Id. at ¶ 11. The officer checked the status of the occupants' driver's licenses and then returned to the minivan to collect "the marijuana buds that became enmeshed in the floorboard carpeting and crumbled. The officer found a yellow 'Joyce Leslie' bag beneath the passenger seat that contained a black bag with a large quantity of United States currency bundled in black rubber bands." Id. at ¶ 14.

A second Mantua police officer arrived on the scene and aided in the search. The search produced a black purse from beneath the back bench containing a large amount of money. Id. at ¶ 15. The second officer also smelled a strong odor of raw marijuana and observed "out of place bolts on the housing underneath the steering column." Id. at ¶ 15; see also DVD at 29:22. A search of the column did not reveal anything. Compl. at ¶ 15. Both Gardner and Harold were read their Miranda rights and then questioned about the money. Id. at ¶¶ 17-19. Gardner refused to answer any questions and Harold responded that he was "unaware of any money in the van". Id. at ¶ 18. Herner took possession of the money.

After Gardner was issued a summons for driving while suspended, the two men were released and they drove to the Mantua police station where they were given a receipt for the confiscated money. Id. at ¶¶ 19-20. A Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") task force officer was notified of the situation and a K-9 search of the currency indicated the presence of narcotic residue. Id. at ¶¶ 21-22. An additional count of the seized currency was made by a DEA officer, resulting in a total of $43, 557.00. Id. at ¶ 23.

No charges were ever brought against Harold or Gardner for the presence of the alleged marijuana found in the vehicle. And the substance that Herner alleged to be marijuana was never tested or confirmed to be an illegal substance. The only infraction that resulted from the traffic stop was the ticket issued to Gardner for driving with a suspended driver's license.

The DEA initiated separate administrative forfeiture proceedings against the $4000.oo found on Gardner and the $39,557.00 collectively found in the Joyce Leslie bag under the passenger seat and the black purse found below the back bench seat. Neither Gardner nor Harold made a claim for the $4000.00. But Harold filed a claim against the seized $39,557.000 currency. As a result of Harold's claim, the DEA terminated the administrative forfeiture proceedings. The matter was subsequently referred to the United States, which instituted civil forfeiture proceedings against the defendant currency in the amount of $39,557.00. Harold seeks to challenge the forfeiture.

II. Discussion

The Third Circuit requires that Harold demonstrate both statutory standing and Article III standing before he can challenge the forfeiture. U.S. v. $8,221,877.16 in U.S. Currency, 330 F.3d 141, 150, n.9 (3d Cir. 2003)(citing U.S. Contents of Accounts Nos. 3034504504 & 14407143 (In re Friko Corp.), 971 F.2d. 978, 984 (3d Cir. 1992)). "Statutory standing is a threshold issue that determines whether a party is properly before the court." Id. Should the Court find that Mr. Harold has demonstrated statutory standing, the next consideration is whether he has perfected Article III and prudential standing.

A. Statutory Standing- Compliance with Supplemental Rules G(5)(a)(i)(B) & (C) and G(6)

To establish statutory standing in a forfeiture action, a potential claimant must comply with both the statutory and procedural requirements delineated in 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(4)(A) and the corresponding Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims And Asset Forfeiture Actions (Supplemental Rules), specifically Rules G(5)(a)(i)(B) & (C). In relevant part, 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(4)(A) provides:

In any case in which the Government files in the appropriate United States district court a complaint for forfeiture of property, any person claiming an interest in the seized property may file a claim asserting such person's interest in the property in the manner set forth in the Supplemental Rules for Certain Admiralty and Maritime Claims, except that such claim may be filed not later than 30 days after the date of service of the Government's complaint ...


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