342 F.3d 903 (9th Cir. 2003), 01-35989, U.S. v. Ritchie

Docket Nº:01-35989
Citation:342 F.3d 903
Party Name:U.S. v. Ritchie
Case Date:August 26, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
 
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342 F.3d 903 (9th Cir. 2003)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Donald Lawrence RITCHIE, Defendant,

Heather Horner, Claimant-Appellant.

No. 01-35989.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

August 26, 2003

Argued and Submitted May 12, 2003.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Crandon Randell, James Barkeley, Office of the United States Attorney, Anchorage, AK, for the plaintiff-appellee.

Jeffrey Commisso, Luce Forward Hamilton and Scripps, San Diego, CA, Heather Horner, pro se for the claimant-appellant.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Alaska; H. Russel Holland, Chief Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CR-99-00062-HRH.

Before: HAWKINS, W. FLETCHER, Circuit Judges, and BREYER, [*] District Judge.

WILLIAM A. FLETCHER, Circuit Judge.

After the conclusion of criminal proceedings, appellant Heather Horner sought the return of seized personal property pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(e). The district court denied relief, and we reverse. We hold that Horner's Rule 41(e) motion should have been treated as a complaint filed under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Joinin of r sister circuits, we further hold that when a letter providing personal notice of a forfeiture proceeding is returned undelivered, the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") must make reasonable additional efforts to provide personal notice of the proceeding.

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I. Background

Appellant Horner was dating Donald Ritchie, a drug dealer. In the course of its investigation of Ritchie in 1999, the DEA obtained and executed a search warrant at Horner's apartment. The DEA found and confiscated $3,000 cash, a revolver, and other items. Ritchie was subsequently arrested and convicted of federal drug charges, but Horner was never charged or arrested. The DEA nonetheless administratively forfeited the cash and revolver it had taken from her apartment.

After the completion of criminal proceedings against Ritchie, Horner filed a pro se motion in federal district court on April 27, 2001 for the return of her property pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(e). Horner alleged that the DEA had not provided her adequate notice of the forfeiture proceedings, and she asked the court to vacate the forfeiture and to order the DEA to return the seized items to her.

On June 7, the government filed an opposition to Horner's motion. It contended that the DEA's notice procedures had been adequate and that, in any event, Horner had received actual notice of the forfeiture proceedings. To support its factual contentions, the government attached a variety of materials to its opposition. It attached a declaration of John Hieronymus, forfeiture counsel of the DEA, attesting to the DEA's attempts at notice. The declaration was not signed by Hieronymus, but rather by Vicki Rashid, who signed it "for" Hieronymus. Eighteen exhibits were attached to the Hieronymus declaration. Among them were copies of notices published in the USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, copies of letters sent by the DEA to Horner and Ritchie, and a copy of a "Petition for Return of Property" signed by Ritchie and sent to the DEA. The government contended, among other things, that the handwriting on the envelope containing Ritchie's petition was Horner's, and that Horner therefore must have had adequate notice of the impending forfeiture proceedings.

On July 5, the district court denied Horner's motion "[f]or the reasons and upon the authorities set out by the government in its opposition." The court specifically found that Horner was "duly and lawfully notified of the DEA forfeiture proceedings." On July 26, Horner filed a reply to the government's opposition, but the district court took no action in response to her reply. Horner appealed, and we appointed pro bono counsel.

We review de novo a district court's decision to deny a Rule 41(e) motion. United States v. Marolf, 173 F.3d 1213, 1216 (9th Cir. 1999). If a Rule 41(e) motion is filed when no criminal proceeding is pending, the motion is treated as a civil complaint seeking equitable relief. United States v. Martinson, 809 F.2d 1364, 1366-67 (9th Cir. 1987).

II. Discussion

A. Rule 41(e) Motion Treated as a Complaint

Horner contends on appeal that the district court erred by failing to treat her Rule 41(e) motion as a civil complaint. The government first argues that Horner waived this issue by failing to raise it below. Because Horner was proceeding pro se and because her motion was summarily denied, however, she had little meaningful opportunity to raise this issue in the district court. The government, moreover, itself raised the issue in the district court when it suggested in its opposition that Horner's complaint "[a]rguably . . . could be treated as a complaint invoking the court's equitable jurisdiction." In any event, we have discretion to hear an

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issue raised for the first time on appeal when the issue is purely a question of law and does not depend on the factual record developed below. See Marx v. Loral Corp., 87 F.3d 1049, 1055 (9th Cir. 1996). Whether Horner's Rule 41(e) motion should be treated as a civil complaint is purely a question of law and does not depend on facts not in the present record. For these reasons, we believe that it is appropriate for us to reach the issue.

The government argues that, if we reach the merits of Horner's contention, the district court had discretion to dismiss a free-standing Rule 41(e) motion based on a lesser showing than would have been required to dismiss a civil complaint. Our decisions indicate no such discretion. See Marol...

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