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United States v. $39

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

June 6, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
$39, 000.00 in U.S. Currency, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          DAN AARON POLSTER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court in this civil forfeiture case is the United States' Motion for Summary Judgment on the Issue of Standing etc. Doc #: 12. For the following reasons, the Motion is GRANTED.

         I.

         On March 13, 2018, Addonisse Wells was a ticketed passenger on a flight departing Cleveland Hopkins International Airport destined for Houston, Texas. Doc #: 1 (“Comp.) ¶ 6. Routine screening of his carry-on luggage alerted for the presence of an organic bulk mass, leading TSA to conduct an examination of the luggage. Id. ¶¶ 7, 8. After discovering several rubber-banded bundles of mixed-denomination U.S. currency, TSA notified the Cleveland Police Department (“CPD”). Id. ¶¶ 9, 10. Upon determining that the large amount of U.S. currency was likely the proceeds of criminal activity, the CPD referred the matter to Homeland Security Investigations (“HMI”) for further investigation. Id. ¶ 11. An HSI agent and Task Force Officer asked Wells to accompany them to the HSI office where he was interviewed. Id. ¶¶ 10, 11.

         Wells stated that the bag and all its contents belonged to him and that he was carrying $39, 000.00 in U.S. currency. Comp. ¶ 12. He explained that while he lives in Houston, he does all his banking in Cleveland. Id. Wells claimed he had taken all the currency out of the Cleveland bank on various dates, but was unable to provide any bank receipts. Id. ¶ 14. Wells asserted that he was originally from Cleveland and owns a real estate business, but would not provide the name of his business, nor the locations of any real property he owns. Id. ¶ 15. Wells provided a contact phone number, but then stated he would be changing the phone number the next day to avoid further contact by law enforcement. Id. ¶ 16. Wells stated that he had served 6-plus years in prison and was currently on federal probation for a drug conviction. Comp. ¶ 17. A certified drug-detection canine alerted positive to the odor of narcotics on the currency. Id. ¶ 19. Wells has a drug-related criminal history that includes a 2012 conviction for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute heroin in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, and arrests in Cleveland, Ohio for possession of drugs in 2005 and 2007. Id. ¶ 19. Based on these circumstances, HSI seized the $39, 000.00 in currency. Id. ¶ 20.

         On July 30, 2018, the United States filed a Complaint in Forfeiture against the Defendant Currency alleging that it is subject to forfeiture under 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6) in that the funds constitute proceeds from illegal drug trafficking activities and/or were used or intended to be used to facilitate drug trafficking in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a) and/or 846. Comp.1 ¶ 5.

         On August 14, 2018, Wells filed a Verified Claim. Doc #: 4. Wells asserts that he was “the sole and absolute owner of the monies, ” he was “in sole and exclusive possession of all of these monies when it was unlawfully removed from [his] exclusive possession and control, ” and he continues “to be victimized by the illegal retention of the funds here involved.” Id.

         II.

         A.

         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) and LaPointe v. UAW Local 600, 8 F.3d 376, 378 (6th Cir. 1993)). The burden of showing the absence of genuine issues of material facts rests with the moving party:

[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, ” if any, which it believes demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.

United States v. $99, 500.00 in U.S. Currency, 339 F.Supp.2d 690, 694 (N.D. Ohio 2018) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323, in turn quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). The nonmoving party must present significant probative evidence to demonstrate that there is [more than] some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Id. (citing Moore v. Philip Morris Cos., Inc., 8 Fed.3d 335, 340 (6th Cir. 1993)). That is, the nonmoving party may not rely on its pleadings, but must produce evidence that results in a conflict of material fact to be solved by a jury.” Id. (citing Cox v. Kentucky Dep't of Transp., 53 F.3d 146, 150 (6th Cir. 1995)). The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party's position will be insufficient to survive summary judgment. If the evidence is “merely colorable” and not “significantly probative, ” the court may decide the legal issue and grant summary judgment. Id. (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).

         B.

         Federal law governing civil in rem forfeiture actions gives the government the authority to seize items it suspects were used in furtherance of criminal activity, and to commence civil forfeiture proceedings against the property without charging the property's owner with a crime. United States v. $31, 000.00 in U.S. Currency, 872 F.3d 342, 344 (6th Cir. 2017). The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 983, sets forth the General Rules for Civil Forfeiture Proceedings, and allows persons claiming an interest in that property to do so in the manner set forth in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure's Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Civil Forfeiture Actions (“Rule”). 18 U.S.C. §§ 983(a)(4)(A), (B). Rule G governs pleadings, discovery, and motion practice in civil forfeiture actions.

         A person who wishes to intervene and assert an interest in the property in a civil forfeiture case must file two responsive pleadings: a verified claim and an answer. Rule G(5). The verified claim must identify the specific property claimed, identify the claimant, state the claimant's interest in the property, and be signed by the claimant under penalty of perjury. Rule G(5)(a)(I). The mere assertion of ownership in a verified claim or answer is sufficient to confer standing over the property at the pleading stage. $31, 000.00 in U.S. Currency, 872 F.3d at ...


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