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Judge’s dismissal of claim contesting forfeiture was on ‘unsound’ ground

June 11, 2013

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals sent a man’s claim contesting forfeiture of nearly $200,000 found in his home during a police search back to the District Court for reconsideration. The judges ruled that the ground for dismissal given by the judge, as well as the alternative ground argued by the government, were “unsound.”

In United States of America v. $196,969.00 United States Currency; Rodney Johnson, 12-3414, the state turned over the money found in Rodney Johnson’s home to the federal government for forfeiture proceedings. The money would then be split between the state and federal government if the proceedings were successful.

The Justice Department filed the forfeiture suit, alleging the cash found was the proceeds of illegal drug activity and therefore subject to forfeiture. Johnson filed a claim contesting the matter, which said “as a legal occupant of the house I have rights of ownership to all items found within the house.”

District Judge Jane E. Magnus-Stinson ruled that Johnson’s claim did not comply fully with the requirements of Rule G(5)(a)(i), which requires the claim be signed under penalty of perjury; served on the government; and identify the specific property claimed, the claimant, and state his or her interest in the property. Magnus-Stinson relied on an unpublished District Court opinion out of Maryland that included additional requirements a claimant must state, none of which Johnson did, so she dismissed the claim. She did not address the issue of Article III standing.

“The government was free to respond with evidence that Johnson had no rights in the money but it could not simply demand that he prove, beyond the claim itself if compliant with Rule G(5), that he had standing – especially that he ‘prove’ Article III standing,” Judge Richard Posner wrote. “Imagine what it would do to federal litigation to require every plaintiff (or claimant in a forfeiture suit, who is like a plaintiff) not only to allege, but to prove, facts establishing the district court’s constitutional authority to decide his case. That is not required.”

He pointed out that Magnus-Stinson could have dismissed the claim before the government objected to it because it was either frivolous or obscure. This was Johnson’s second try at filing the claim, and it will be up to the District Court as to whether to give him a third try.

 

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