U.S. v. $31,000.00, et al., No. 16-4279 (BATCHELDER, Cole, Moore).
A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) search of two men at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport revealed that each were carrying tens of thousands of dollars in cash, which the men claimed to own but about which they could not provide details. After a drug dog alerted to the scent of drugs on each man’s cash, the DEA seized the money and the government filed for forfeiture of the cash. Both men filed verified claims, alleging that they were the sole owners of the cash taken from them. The government filed a motion to strike the claims before any discovery was taken, and the district court struck the claims, finding that the men lacked standing to challenge forfeiture because they only put forth a “naked assertion of ownership” over the seized money. The men appealed.
The Sixth Circuit reversed the district court, identifying this as a case of first impression in this Circuit. The Court noted that the government only moved to strike the claims for the men’s alleged failure to establish statutory standing under the procedural rules, specifically Supplemental Rule G(5) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure’s Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Civil Forfeiture Actions. After considering the Rules and case law in detail, the Court held that Rule G(5) only requires claimants to identify themselves and state their interests in the property subject to forfeiture at the pleading stage. The Court reasoned that the text of Rule G does not support the government’s assertion that claimants have to provide additional detail, and moreover the requirement that a claimant establish Article III standing and the Rules’ provision allowing the government to investigate claims through discovery adequately protects against false claims.