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Gabrielle Cohen-Sanchez v. United States of America

April 5, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. William J. Martini



This matter comes before the Court on pro se Petitioner Gabrielle Cohen-Sanchez's motion*fn1 for the return of administratively forfeited property pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 983(e).*fn2 The Government opposes the motion and cross-moves for dismissal of the action. Cohen-Sanchez has also filed applications to proceed in forma pauperis ("IFP") and for the appointment of pro bono counsel. For the reasons set forth in this Opinion, the Court will GRANT Petitioner's IFP application, DENY Petitioner's motion for the return of forfeited property, GRANT the Government's cross-motion to dismiss, and DENY Petitioner's pro bono application as moot.


Petitioner is presently serving a 66-month sentence for her role in a conspiracy to distribute cocaine.*fn4 The following events bear on the present motions.

On August 10, 2008, Petitioner and her husband were arrested by Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") agents at their New Jersey residence. In the course of that arrest, DEA agents seized 71 items of jewelry*fn5 belonging to Cohen-Sanchez and her husband*fn6 for forfeiture to the Government, as property acquired with drug trafficking proceeds. 21 U.S.C. § 881.

In September 2008, Cohen-Sanchez signed for and received a letter by certified mail from the DEA entitled "Notice of Seizure," which informed her that the DEA had begun the civil administrative process through which the jewelry would be forfeited to the Government. (Pet'r's Mot., ¶ 4, ECF. No. 1; Declar. of John Hieronymus, Exs. 1, 2, ECF No. 6.) The letter listed the items of seized jewelry that were to be forfeited and explained that Cohen-Sanchez could contest the administrative forfeiture by filing: (1) a Claim, and/or (2) a Petition for Mitigation and/or Remission ("Petition"). The letter also explained the process for filing those documents. (Hieronymus Decl., Ex. 1.) Seperately, the DEA published notice that Cohen-Sanchez's property was seized for administrative forfeiture in the Wall Street Journal on October 13, 20, and 27, 2008. (Id. at Ex. 11.)

In response to the DEA's Notice of Forfeiture, on October 31, 2008, Cohen-Sanchez -- through her attorney -- sent the DEA a self-prepared document which she captioned "Petition for Remission or Mitigation" in which she explained that she wished "to assert a claim to the seized property and request remission or mitigation of forfeiture." (Pet'r's Mot. 11; Hieronymus Decl., Ex. 15.) Cohen-Sanchez did not request a transfer of the forfeiture action to a judicial forum in her responsive document. In the cover letter sent with Cohen-Sanchez's response, her attorney characterized the document as a "Petition for Remission or Mitigation signed by [Petitioner]." (Id.)

On November 21, 2008, a letter from the DEA confirming receipt and acceptance of Cohen-Sanchez's "Petition for Remission and/or Mitigation of Forfeiture" was delivered to the office of Cohen-Sanchez's attorney.*fn7 (Hieronymus Decl., Ex. 19.) The letter informed Cohen-Sanchez that her "Petition for Remission and/or Mitigation of forfeiture" was received by the DEA and would be ruled on administratively. (Pet'r's Mot. 19; Hieronymus Decl., Ex. 18.)

On December 10, 2008, the DEA issued a Declaration of Forfeiture, at which point the property was formally forfeited to the Government. 18 U.S.C. § 1609. The DEA issued the Declaration after determining through administrative proceedings that:

(1) notice of the seizure was properly sent to all parties with a possessory interest in the jewelry, (2) notice was correctly published in a newspaper of general circulation, (3) that no party filed a Claim for the property, and, (4) there was sufficient information to support the forfeiture of the jewelry. (Hieronymus Decl., Ex. 20.)

Thereafter, on January 28, 2009, the DEA denied Cohen-Sanchez's "Petition for Remission or Mitigation." A letter from the DEA informing Cohen-Sanchez of the denial of her Petition was delivered to the office of Cohen-Sanchez's attorney on February 9, 2009. (Hieronymus Decl., Ex. 22.) The letter stated the DEA's basis for its denial of the Petition and stated that Cohen-Sanchez could request reconsideration of the decision. (Id. at Ex. 21.)

Cohen-Sanchez did not request reconsideration of the decision or make any other objections to the DEA's findings, and on June 16, 2011, the forfeited jewelry was sold for $146,000 at auction. (Declar. of Barbara A. Ward, ¶ 6, ECF No. 5.) On November 20, 2011, Petitioner filed the instant motion for return of property, which she seeks to file in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915. Based on her affidavit of ...

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