363 F.Supp. 1337 (D. Puerto Rico 1973), Civ. 1018-72, Pearson Yacht Leasing Co. Div. of Grumman Allied Industries, Inc. v. Massa

Docket NºCiv. 1018-72
Citation363 F.Supp. 1337
Party NamePearson Yacht Leasing Co. Div. of Grumman Allied Industries, Inc. v. Massa
Case DateMarch 28, 1973
CourtUnited States District Courts, 1st Circuit, United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Court (Puerto Rico)

Page 1337

363 F.Supp. 1337 (D. Puerto Rico 1973)



Luis Torres MASSA, as Superintendent of Police of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and Manuel Martinez Suarez, as Chief of the Office of Transportation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Defendants.

Civ. No. 1018-72.

United States District Court, D. Puerto Rico.

March 28, 1973

Probable Jurisdiction Noted Oct. 9, 1973.

Page 1338

Nachman, Feldstein & Gelpi, San Juan, P. R., for plaintiff.

Secretary of Justice through William A. Power, San Juan, P. R., for defendants.

Before COFFIN, Circuit Judge, CANCIO and TOLEDO, District Judges.



Plaintiff instituted this suit seeking permanent injunctive relief alleging that the seizure and forfeiture of its property by the Superintendent of Police of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (hereinafter referred to as the Superintendent), violated the Due Process Clause, and constituted a taking of property without just compensation, contrary to the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States. As the action sought to enjoin the enforcement of a state statute on the grounds of its inconsistency with the Constitution of the United States, a

Page 1339

three-judge court was convened. 1 Although the jurisdiction of this Court is not in issue, we do nevertheless find that all prerequisites, both jurisdictional and pseudojurisdictional, 2 are present and, therefore, conclude that this case is properly before us.

1.-The constitutional claim presented is substantial. Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 81 S.Ct. 473, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961); McNeese v. Board of Education for Community School District No. 187, 373 U.S. 668, 83 S.Ct. 1433, 10 L.Ed.2d 622 (1963); Lynch v. Household Finance Corporation, 405 U.S. 538, 92 S.Ct. 1113, 31 L.Ed.2d 424 (1972).

2.-The challenged statutes have statewide applicability. Board of Regents of the University of Texas System v. New Left Education Project, 404 U.S. 541, 92 S.Ct. 652, 30 L.Ed.2d 697 (1972).

3.-The so called pseudojurisdictional defenses, such as exhaustion, abstention and comity, do not apply to this case. Exhaustion of state judicial remedies is not a prerequisite to invoking federal jurisdiction seeking constitutional protection, Marin v. University of Puerto Rico, 346 F.Supp. 470 (D.P.R.1972). Insofar as abstention is concerned, we specifically find that the statutes here involved, as well as their predecessors, have been consistently interpreted by the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico 3 and, consequently, under the cases of Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433, 91 S.Ct. 507, 27 L.Ed.2d 515 (1970); Fornaris v. Ridge Tool Co., 400 U.S. 41, 91 S.Ct. 156, 27 L.Ed.2d 174 (1970); Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 90 S.Ct. 788, 25 L.Ed.2d 68 (1970); Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 14 L.Ed.2d 50 (1964), and Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941), we need not abstain. We do, nonetheless, believe that the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico would have reached the same result as we do here today, in view of the fact that it has followed federal decisions in interpreting local forfeiture statutes.

There is "[no] conceivable way in which the Commonwealth Courts can construe" the challenged statutes "to avoid the constitutional issues raised in this case." Arias v. Examining Board of Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Technicians, 353 F.Supp. 857 (D.P.R.1972). In rejecting abstention, we have also taken into account the ensuing delay and the prejudice and additional losses that plaintiff would have to bear. Plaintiff has been deprived, since July 11, 1972, of valuable property and of the income produced by it. Also, the nature of the property itself, a yacht, makes it specially susceptible to deterioration and other perils of the sea. But, most compelling, is the fact that under the statutory scheme, the available procedure precludes plaintiff from challenging the

Page 1340

forfeiture in the state courts. 4 Finally, injunctive relief cannot be granted by the Courts of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico because of the existence in Puerto Rico of an anti-injunction statute. 5 Having thus considered these threshold issues, we face the issue on the merits.

Our task has been greatly simplified by the cooperation of the parties in stipulating the facts relevant to the constitutional issues raised. These can be summarized as follows: Plaintiff is in the business of leasing pleasure yachts in the United States and Puerto Rico. On July 11, 1972, one of its yachts was seized by the Superintendent and forfeited to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. At the time of seizure, the yacht in question was in the possession of a third party pursuant to a lease agreement, which among other things specifically prohibited lessee from using the leased property for an unlawful purpose. The lessee had been discovered by police agents possessing marihuana while on board the yacht which, under Puerto Rican law is prohibited. 6 Plaintiff did not know that its property was being used for an illegal purpose and was completely innocent of the lessee's criminal act. After the seizure and within the time allowed by law, 7 the Superintendent notified lessee. Plaintiff was never notified and, since lessee did not post bond, 8 the yacht was forfeited to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. It was not until plaintiff attempted to recover possession of the yacht after lessee had defaulted in the rental payments that plaintiff learned of its forfeiture.

Plaintiff then instituted this suit seeking permanent injunctive relief alleging that the statutes under which the defendants had seized the vessel violated the Due Process Clause and, also, that its property had been taken for public use without just compensation. 9 We agree with the plaintiff.

The statutes involved are Title 24, Laws of Puerto Rico Annotated, Section 2512, which is part of the Controlled Substances Act, 10 and Title 34, Laws of Puerto Rico Annotated. Section 1722, better known as the Uniform Vehicle, Mount, Vessel and Plane Seizure Act. 11 Under Paragraph (a)(4) of the Controlled Substances Act, it is provided that forfeiture shall be had of:

"(4) all conveyances, including aircraft, vehicles, mount or vessels, which are used, or are intended for use, to transport, or on any manner to facilitate the transportation, sale, receipt, possession, or concealment of [a controlled substance] described in clauses (1) or (2) [of this subsection]."

Since marihuana is a controlled substance under the Act, it is included in clause (1) of Section 2512, Subsection (a). Thus, possession of marihuana while on board a vessel makes the vessel subject to forfeiture. Subsection (a)(4), like its predecessor, Title 24, Laws of

Page 1341

Puerto Rico Annotated, Section 975f , makes no distinction between conveyances owned by the person accused of the illegal act and conveyances owned by a person who is innocent of the possessor's criminal act and is in no way whatsoever connected with it. 12

In its brief and oral argument, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico conceded that the owner's innocence is irrelevant to forfeiture proceedings under Section 2512(a)(4), and other Commonwealth of Puerto Rico forfeiture statutes, solely as a result of their interpretation by the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. 13 We cannot in fairness say that the result is the fault of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, for it, like many other courts, state and federal, was merely following the construction given to federal forfeiture statutes by the Supreme Court of the United States. See Goldsmith Jr. Grant Co. v. United States, 254 U.S. 505, 41 S.Ct. 189, 65 L.Ed. 376 (1921); United States v. One Ford Coupe, 272 U.S. 321, 47 S.Ct. 154, 71 L.Ed. 279 (1926); Dobbin's Distillery v. United States, 96 U.S. 395, 399-401, 24 L.Ed. 637 (1878); The Palmyra, 12 Wheat. 1, 14, 6 L.Ed. 531 (1827), which cases have since been overruled. Inasmuch as Puerto Rican forfeitures statutes were, in most instances, copied from their federal counterparts, as a matter of judicial construction it was logically expected that they would have been interpreted by the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in like manner.

The recent decision of United States v. United States Coin and Currency, 401 U.S. 715, 91 S.Ct. 1041, 28 L.Ed.2d 434 (1971), ended the fiction that inanimate objects themselves can be guilty of wrongdoing and it condemned, in the words of Blackstone, the seizure of the property of the innocent "as based upon a 'superstition' inherited from the 'blind days' of feudalism." 14 Justice Harlan, writing for the majority in that case, stated:

"We would first have to be satisfied that a forfeiture statute, with such a broad sweep, did not raise serious constitutional questions under that portion of the Fifth Amendment which commands that no person shall be 'deprived of *** property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."' 15

Even before the advent of Coin and Currency, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in the case of McKeehan v. United States, 438 F.2d 739 (1971), rejected the legal fiction that inanimate objects can be guilty of wrongdoing and went on to say that under the Fifth Amendment "the imposition of forfeiture on the Appellant is penal and causes an unconstitutional deprivation of personal...

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