389 F.3d 1149 (11th Cir. 2004), 01-16485, United States v. $242,484.00

Docket Nº:01-16485.
Citation:389 F.3d 1149
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. $242,484.00, Defendant, Deborah Stanford, individually and as President, Director, and Stockholder of Mike's Import & Exports, U.S.A., a Florida corporation, Claimant-Appellant.
Case Date:November 02, 2004
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

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389 F.3d 1149 (11th Cir. 2004)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,


$242,484.00, Defendant,

Deborah Stanford, individually and as President, Director, and Stockholder of Mike's Import & Exports, U.S.A., a Florida corporation, Claimant-Appellant.

No. 01-16485.

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

November 2, 2004

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Douglas L. Williams, Miami, FL, for Stanford.

Madeleine R. Shirley, Anne R. Schultz, U.S. Atty., Jeanne Marie Mullenhoff, Miami, FL, for U.S.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.


CARNES, Circuit Judge:

This appeal arises out of a civil forfeiture action involving money linked to illegal drug activities. After the district court ordered the forfeiture of $242,484.00 in cash that had been seized from the claimant, Deborah Stanford, a panel of this Court reversed and directed the district court to order the cash returned to her. We granted en banc rehearing to consider two issues raised by the case. One issue concerns the way this Court views district court findings, particularly implicit findings, and the other involves the meaning of probable cause.

This case arose under 21 U.S.C. § 881(a) (6) (1994), a version of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act which is no longer in effect. Under the version of the forfeiture statute that superceded it and applies to cases arising on or after August 23, 2000, probable cause is no longer a central issue in forfeiture proceedings. Nonetheless, we thought the probable cause issue in this case important enough for en banc review because of its implications for search and seizure cases. And our discussion about how an appellate court should view the record and a district court's findings of fact applies to all appeals in which the district court has made explicit or implicit findings.


The United States filed a complaint for civil forfeiture of $242,484.00 in cash seized by Drug Enforcement Agency agents from Deborah Stanford after she arrived at the Miami airport following a flight from New York on December 14, 1998. At Stanford's suggestion, the parties waived any right to a jury trial and the district court heard all of the evidence, including the testimony of a number of law enforcement officers and agents.

After the government rested on the probable cause issue, and Stanford declined to offer any evidence on that aspect of the case, the district court made what it described as a "preliminary" finding that the government had satisfied its burden of showing probable cause to believe that the $242,484.00 in cash was the proceeds of, or was otherwise connected to, illegal drugs. See generally United States v. Carrell,

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252 F.3d 1193, 1201-02 (11th Cir. 2001) . As a result of that finding, the burden shifted to Stanford to establish by a preponderance of the evidence one of two affirmative defenses: either that the money was not the proceeds of illegal drug activity, or that she was an innocent owner. See id. at 1201 (explaining the applicable procedure); United States v. 15603 85th Ave. N., 933 F.2d 976, 979 (11th Cir. 1991) (same). Stanford has never claimed to be the true owner of the money, only the legal possessor, and the owner has never come forward to claim the money.

Stanford herself was her only witness at trial, and she attempted through her testimony to persuade the district court that the $242,484.00 in cash she was carrying was not connected to illegal drug activity. The court was not persuaded. After hearing all of the evidence, the district court issued an opinion explaining how it concluded based upon the totality of the circumstances that the government had established probable cause to believe that the $242,484.00 Stanford was carrying was substantially connected to an illegal drug transaction. The opinion also explained that Stanford had not thereafter satisfied her burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence "that the money at issue was not in fact the proceeds of an illegal narcotics transaction." Because Stanford did not offer any evidence to support an innocent owner defense, the court also found that she had failed to carry her burden of establishing that defense. The district court entered a final judgment in favor of the government and against the defendant property, the $242,484.00. Stanford appealed.

A panel of this Court reversed, holding that probable cause had not been established and that, as a result, the $242,484.00 in cash must be returned to Stanford. United States v. $242,484.00, 318 F.3d 1240, 1242 (11th Cir. 2003), withdrawn by panel and reissued as amended by No. 01-16485, slip op. 2881, 2003 WL 21488882 (11th Cir. June 30, 2003), withdrawn by panel and reissued as amended by 351 F.3d 499 (11th Cir. 2003). We granted rehearing en banc, an action which vacated the existing panel opinion. United States v. $242,484.00, 357 F.3d 1225 (11th Cir. 2004).


Necessarily antecedent to any decision of whether the facts establish probable cause is a determination of what the facts are. For that reason, we first address the fact finding issue. It involves the testimony of one of the DEA agents that, while being questioned about the cash she was carrying, Stanford changed her story. According to the agent, Stanford first said that she had gone to New York City in connection with a court case involving a ten-year old traffic accident, and while there she received a telephone call from her brother asking her to pick up some cash for their business in Miami. The agent testified that following additional questioning, and after a drug-detecting dog had alerted to Stanford's backpack containing the cash, she changed her story and told the agents that she had gone to New York City for the specific purpose of picking up the cash.

After a brief introductory paragraph, the district court's memorandum opinion begins with a section labeled "Facts," the first sentence of which is: "The facts of this case are as follows." That section consists of nine paragraphs and eight footnotes, the last of which describes how questioning of Stanford resumed after the drug dog had alerted on her backpack containing the cash. There the district court says:

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At trial, Agent Miles stated that at this point, Ms. Stanford had changed her story concerning the source of the money. Agent Miles testified that originally Ms. Stanford said that she was in New York for the court case, and then later in the interview switched to claiming that she was in New York specifically to pick up the money in question.

Shortly (six sentences in the main body of the text) thereafter, the "Facts" section of the memorandum opinion ends with the district court's explanation that: "It is upon the above-related facts that the Court bases its decision."

Those written findings came after the court had made oral findings and a ruling immediately upon the conclusion of testimony at the probable cause stage of the trial. In its oral findings, while discussing the many facts that supported probable cause, the district court, referring to what Stanford had told the agents, noted as a fact "the inconsistencies her explanation offered." Not only that but the court also specifically found that one of the "primary factors" weighing in favor of probable cause was "the inconsistent statements by Ms. Stanford as to ... how she came to be carrying [the cash]."

Notwithstanding that, Stanford insists the district court did not actually find that she changed her story, but instead in its written findings merely described Agent Miles' testimony that she had done so. In reviewing the district court's probable cause determination, Stanford says that we must accept as a fact that she did not change her story. In other words, she would have us construe the district court's description of the agent's testimony, the truth of which would support the district court's conclusion and judgment, as a finding by the court that the testimony is false. Stanford's position has things upside down.

A bedrock principle upon which our appellate review has relied is that the "appeal is not from the opinion of the district court but from its judgment." Gilbert v. Sterrett, 509 F.2d 1389, 1393 (5th Cir. 1975).1 We have seen it as "our duty ... to view the testimony and inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the prevailing party below." Daniel v. United States, 234 F.2d 102, 106 (5th Cir. 1956); see also United States v. Goddard, 312 F.3d 1360, 1362 (11th Cir. 2002) ("The facts are construed in the light most favorable to the prevailing party."); United States v. Robinson, 62 F.3d 1325, 1331 n. 11 (11th Cir. 1995) ("Our review standard requires us to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party...."); United States v. Cure, 996 F.2d 1136, 1138 (11th Cir. 1993) ("[T]his court must construe the facts in the light most favorable to the prevailing party. Moreover, appellant must show that the district court clearly erred in its findings of fact."); Dillon v. M.S. Oriental Inventor, 426 F.2d 977, 978 (5th Cir. 1970) ("In the absence of clear error, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party who prevailed below."); Alcott Co. v. Raphael, 275 F.2d 551, 552 (5th Cir. 1960) ("Stating the facts most strongly in favor of the appellee, as we must on an appeal from a finding of facts....").2

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Nothing in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) is to the contrary.3 It does not require or even arguably support construing the record or...

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