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United States v. $31

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

May 23, 2018

United States of America, Plaintiff,
v.
$31, 000 in U.S. Currency, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION AND ORDER

          PATRICIA A. GAUGHAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         INTRODUCTION

         This case arises in the context of a civil forfeiture action. Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment on the Issue of Standing (Doc. 33). For the reasons that follow, the motion is GRANTED.

         FACTS

         On February 24, 2016, Taiwan Wiggins and Dalante Allison (together, “claimants”) were at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport for a flight to Orange County, California. According to the government's verified complaint, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was aware of their itineraries, that each had previous felony drug convictions, and that Wiggins was a significant drug dealer in Cleveland. The DEA observed them at the airport engaging in conversation as they walked together toward the security checkpoint.

         The government alleges that, after passing through security, Wiggins spoke voluntarily with a DEA agent who asked him if he was traveling with any bulk currency. Wiggins responded that he had $2, 000 in a shoe in his bag. According to the government, Wiggins consented to a search of his luggage, during which the DEA agents found $31, 000 hidden behind the lining of his suitcase. Wiggins claimed that the money was earnings from his company Wiggins Cleaning. He could not name any businesses that his company provided services to other than “Mike & Mike.” The government alleges that while the DEA questioned Wiggins, Allison walked by and then joined a long line at Starbucks shortly before his scheduled flight time. When the gate agent paged him, he quickly jumped out of line and rushed down the jetway. A Homeland Security Investigations agent told the gate agent to ask Allison to come back up the jet way. Allison allegedly agreed to speak to a DEA agent and consented to a search of his carry-on luggage. The agent found $10, 000 in currency in a sock. Allison stated that he had won the money at a casino but could not provide the name of the casino or the date when he had won the money. He also stated that his employer was “Jay's Cleaning Service, ” that he earned $35, 000 annually, and that he filed taxes annually.

         A canine officer and his canine then conducted a blind test at the airport. The canine alerted to the odor of narcotics on “the separate boxes containing each of the defendant currencies.” The government thereafter seized the funds. It then filed an in rem forfeiture complaint in this Court. In its complaint, the government states that the DEA could not locate business filings for Jay's Cleaning, Wiggins Cleaning, or Mike and Mike, and that neither claimant filed state income tax returns for 2011-2015. The government alleges that the defendant currencies were forfeitable pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6), as proceeds traceable to drug trafficking activities or that were used or intended to be used to facilitate drug trafficking in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a), 846.

         In response to the government's complaint, Wiggins and Allison filed verified claims. Both claimants assert that the DEA conducted “a warrantless arrest and a warrantless search and seizure [in] the absence of probable cause.” Each state that “this Claim is further based on the indisputable fact that as the person who is the sole and absolute owner, and who was in exclusive possession of the monies, I was victimized by an illegal arrest and I was victimized by the illegal seizure of the funds here involved.” The claimants also filed answers denying the relevant allegations by the government, including that the money was theirs, that the searches were consensual, that they failed to pay taxes, and that the funds were forfeitable.

         The government moved to strike both claims because they raised only bald assertions of ownership. It argued that such assertions were insufficient to meet the statutory requirements of Rule G of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure's Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Civil Forfeiture Actions (the “Supplemental Rules”). This Court granted the motion to strike, and the claimants appealed. In deciding the matter as an issue of first impression in the Sixth Circuit, the court reversed, holding that, “[a]t the pleading stage, a verified claim of ownership is sufficient to satisfy Article III [standing requirements] and the procedural requirements of Rule G.” United States v. $31, 000 in U.S. Currency, 872 F.3d 342, 351 (6th Cir. 2017).

         On remand, this Court set a non-expert discovery deadline of March 15, 2018, and a dispositive motion deadline of April 15, 2018. The government served special interrogatories pursuant to Supplement Rule G(6)(a) on the claimants on December 8, 2017. Under this rule, “[t]he government may serve special interrogatories limited to the claimant's identity and relationship to the defendant property without the court's leave at any time after the claim is filed and before discovery is closed.” The interrogatories sought information about the source of the money that the claimants were carrying in their luggage, legitimate income sources, the purpose and nature of the claimant's travel, and the relationships between the claimants and with another individual involved in a separate seizure that occurred the same day and involved the same scheduled flight. Claimants filed affidavits on February 21, 2018, stating that they were exercising their Fifth Amendment right to not respond to the special interrogatories. Counsel for claimants also filed an opposition brief, stating that the claimants “are not required to put on, or even expose, their defenses prematurely. This is so because until the Government survives [t]heir ‘Motion to Suppress' and actually proves the items centralized in the litigation are forfeitable-indeed to the Government. [sic]….This follows because no Claimant is required to put on any defense to a forfeiture case until the government first proves the items sought to be forfeited are indeed forfeitable.” (Doc. 30, at 1).

         The government deposed both claimants on April 14, 2018. Claimants invoked the Fifth Amendment in response to nearly all questions. Specifically, they refused to answer any questions regarding the circumstances surrounding their acquisition of the seized currency, including the date, manner, and source of the currency. They did not answer any questions regarding their employment, their past criminal record, their relationships with each other, whether the currency was drug trafficking proceeds and/or facilitating property, the details of their intended air travel, or whether they were transporting the currencies on behalf of, or at the direction of, another person. In fact, claimants refused to answer whether they were the owners of the currency or even that they were in possession of the currency at the time it was seized. (See Depo. of Taiwan Wiggins; Depo. of Dalante Allison). In addition, the government's notices of deposition directed each claimant to produce all documents, records, and evidence that he intended to introduce at trial regarding his claim. Claimants again exercised their Fifth Amendment privilege in response to the request to provide the requested documentation, and their counsel confirmed that the claimants had no documents to offer.

         Now pending before the Court is the Government's Motion for Summary Judgment on the Issue of Standing, which claimants oppose.

         SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Summary Judgment is appropriate when no genuine issues of material fact exist and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)); see also LaPointe v. UAW, Local 600, 8 F.3d 376, 378 (6th Cir. 1993). The burden of ...


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