DEGEN v. UNITED STATES

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtJustia & Oyez
Citation517 U.S. 820
Decision Date10 June 1996

OCTOBER TERM, 1995

Syllabus

DEGEN v. UNITED STATES

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

No. 95-173. Argued April 22, 1996-Decided June 10, 1996


Petitioner Degen is outside the United States and cannot be extradited to face federal drug charges. When he filed an answer in a related civil action, contesting the Government's attempt to forfeit properties allegedly purchased with proceeds from his drug dealings, the District Court struck his claims and entered summary judgment against him, holding that he was not entitled to be heard in the forfeiture action because he remained outside the country, unamenable to criminal prosecution. The court's final order vested title to the properties in the United States, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: A district court may not strike a claimant's filings in a forfeiture suit and grant summary judgment against him for failing to appear in a related criminal prosecution. Pp. 822-829.

(a) The Government contends that the District Court's inherent powers authorized it to strike Degen's claims under what has been labeled the "fugitive disentitlement doctrine." Principles of deference counsel restraint in resorting to the courts' inherent authority to protect their proceedings and judgments in the course of discharging their traditional responsibilities, see, e. g., Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U. S. 32, 44, and require its use to be a reasonable response to the problems and needs provoking it, Ortega-Rodriguez v. United States, 507 U. S. 234, 244. Pp. 822-824.

(b) No necessity justifies disentitlement here. Since the court's jurisdiction over the property is secure despite Degen's absence, there is no risk of delay or frustration in determining the merits of the Government's forfeiture claims or in enforcing the resulting judgment. The court has alternatives, other than the harsh sanction of disentitlement, to keep Degen from using liberal civil discovery rules to gain an improper advantage in the criminal prosecution, where discovery is more limited. Disentitlement also is too arbitrary a means of redressing the indignity visited upon the court by Degen's absence from the criminal proceedings and deterring flight from criminal prosecution by Degen and others. A court's dignity derives from the respect accorded its judgments. That respect is eroded, not enhanced, by excessive


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recourse to rules foreclosing consideration of claims on the merits. Pp.824-829.

47 F. 3d 1511, reversed and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Lawrence S. Robbins argued the cause for petitioner.

With him on the briefs were Andrew L. Frey, Alan E. Untereiner, and Daniel W Stewart.

Miguel A. Estrada argued the cause for the United States.

With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, and Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben. *

JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case we consider whether a United States District Court may strike the filings of a claimant in a forfeiture suit and grant summary judgment against him for failing to appear in a related criminal prosecution. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held this to be a proper exercise of the District Court's inherent authority. We reverse.

A federal grand jury in Nevada indicted Brian Degen for distributing marijuana, laundering money, and related crimes. On the same day in 1989 that it unsealed the indictment, the United States District Court for the District of Nevada also unsealed a civil forfeiture complaint. The Government sought to forfeit properties in California, Nevada, and Hawaii, allegedly worth $5.5 million and purchased with proceeds of Degen's drug sales or used to facilitate the sales. 84 Stat. 1276, as amended, 21 U. S. C. §§ 881(a)(6)-(a)(7). An affidavit by an agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency accompanied the complaint and recounted instances of Degen's alleged drug smuggling during the previous 20 years.

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for Public Citizen by Alan B. Morrison and Allison M. Zieve; and for Ghaith R. Pharaon by Richard F. Lawler.


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Degen is a citizen of the United States and of Switzerland, his father having been born there. Degen moved to Switzerland with his family in 1988. He has not returned to face the criminal charges against him, and we are advised that Switzerland's extradition treaty with the United States does not oblige either country to turn its nationals over to the other. While remaining outside this country, however, Degen did file an answer in the civil action to contest the forfeiture. Among other things, he contended the Government's claims were barred by the statute of limitations, 46 Stat. 758, as amended, 19 U. S. C. § 1621, and based on an unlawful retroactive application of the forfeiture laws.

The District Court in the forfeiture case did not consider any of these arguments. Instead it granted the Government's motion to strike Degen's claims and entered summary judgment against him. The court held Degen was not entitled to be heard in the civil forfeiture action because he remained outside the country, unamenable to criminal prosecution. United States v. Real Property Located at Incline Village, 755 F. Supp. 308 (1990). After another two years consumed by procedural matters (for the most part involving attempts by Degen's wife to contest the forfeiture), the District Court entered a final order vesting title to the properties in the United States. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed. United States v. Real Property Located at Incline Village, 47 F. 3d 1511 (1995). We granted certiorari. 516 U. S. 1070 (1996).

In an ordinary case a citizen has a right to a hearing to contest the forfeiture of his property, a right secured by the Due Process Clause, United States v. James Daniel Good Real Property, 510 U. S. 43, 48-62 (1993); Fuentes v. Shevin, 407 U. S. 67, 80 (1972); McVeigh v. United States, 11 Wall. 259, 266-267 (1871), and implemented by federal rule, Rule C(6) of the Supplemental Rules for Certain Admiralty and Maritime Claims. Nonetheless, the Government argues, the


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District Court's inherent powers authorized it to strike Degen's claims under what some courts have labeled the "fugitive disentitlement doctrine." We have sustained, to be sure, the authority of an appellate court to dismiss an appeal or writ in a criminal matter when the party seeking relief becomes a fugitive. Ortega-Rodriguez v. United States, 507 U. S. 234, 239 (1993); Smith v. United States, 94 U. S. 97 (1876). The question before us is whether the doctrine should be extended to allow a court in a civil forfeiture suit to enter judgment against a claimant because he is a fugitive from, or otherwise is resisting, a related criminal prosecution. The Courts of Appeals to consider the question have come to different conclusions (compare the decision here and in United States v. Eng, 951 F. 2d 461 (CA2 1991), with United States v. $40,877.59 in United States Currency, 32 F. 3d 1151 (CA71994), and United States v. $83,320 in United States Currency, 682 F. 2d 573 (CA6 1982)), precipitating our grant of certiorari in this case.

Courts invested with the judicial power of the United States have certain inherent authority to protect their proceedings and judgments in the course of discharging their traditional responsibilities. Chambers v. NASCa, Inc., 501 U. S. 32, 43-46...

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503 practice notes
  • Humphries v. Various Federal USINS Employees, No. 96-10383
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • January 21, 1999
    ...to strike Humphries' appeal because of his alleged fugitive status prior to leaving for Kenya is DENIED. See Degen v. United States, 517 U.S. 820, ----, 116 S.Ct. 1777, 1782-83, 135 L.Ed.2d 102 (1996). DENNIS, Circuit Judge, concurring in part and dissenting in part: I concur in parts I thr......
  • United States v. Oliver, No. 15-4376
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • December 20, 2017
    ...to protect their proceedings and judgments in the course of discharging their traditional responsibilities." Degen v. United States , 517 U.S. 820, 823, 116 S.Ct. 1777, 135 L.Ed.2d 102 (1996). Inherent powers are those "necessarily vested in courts to manage their own affairs so as to achie......
  • Covington v. North Carolina, 1:15CV399
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Middle District of North Carolina
    • January 21, 2018
    ...inherent powers are abundant in both our civil and our criminal jurisprudence" and collecting cases); see also Degen v. United States , 517 U.S. 820, 827, 116 S.Ct. 1777, 135 L.Ed.2d 102 (1996) ; Spagnuolo v. Whirlpool Corp. , 717 F.2d 114, 122 (4th Cir. 1983). This is especially so here, g......
  • United States v. All Assets Listed in Attachment A (In re Rem), Civil No. 1:14-cv-969
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Virginia)
    • February 27, 2015
    ...368 F.3d 190, 197 (2d. Cir. 2004) (discussing cases invoking the common law fugitive disentitlement doctrine). In Degen v. United States, 517 U.S. 820 (1996), the Supreme Court declined to extend the common law doctrine to allow courts to disentitle fugitive claimants in civil forfeiture ac......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
502 cases
  • Humphries v. Various Federal USINS Employees, No. 96-10383
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • January 21, 1999
    ...to strike Humphries' appeal because of his alleged fugitive status prior to leaving for Kenya is DENIED. See Degen v. United States, 517 U.S. 820, ----, 116 S.Ct. 1777, 1782-83, 135 L.Ed.2d 102 (1996). DENNIS, Circuit Judge, concurring in part and dissenting in part: I concur in parts I thr......
  • United States v. Oliver, No. 15-4376
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • December 20, 2017
    ...to protect their proceedings and judgments in the course of discharging their traditional responsibilities." Degen v. United States , 517 U.S. 820, 823, 116 S.Ct. 1777, 135 L.Ed.2d 102 (1996). Inherent powers are those "necessarily vested in courts to manage their own affairs so as to achie......
  • Covington v. North Carolina, 1:15CV399
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Middle District of North Carolina
    • January 21, 2018
    ...inherent powers are abundant in both our civil and our criminal jurisprudence" and collecting cases); see also Degen v. United States , 517 U.S. 820, 827, 116 S.Ct. 1777, 135 L.Ed.2d 102 (1996) ; Spagnuolo v. Whirlpool Corp. , 717 F.2d 114, 122 (4th Cir. 1983). This is especially so here, g......
  • United States v. All Assets Listed in Attachment A (In re Rem), Civil No. 1:14-cv-969
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Virginia)
    • February 27, 2015
    ...368 F.3d 190, 197 (2d. Cir. 2004) (discussing cases invoking the common law fugitive disentitlement doctrine). In Degen v. United States, 517 U.S. 820 (1996), the Supreme Court declined to extend the common law doctrine to allow courts to disentitle fugitive claimants in civil forfeiture ac......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • ELIMINATING THE FUGITIVE DISENTITLEMENT DOCTRINE IN IMMIGRATION MATTERS.
    • United States
    • Notre Dame Law Review Vol. 97 Nbr. 3, March 2022
    • March 1, 2022
    ...extraordinaire. (1) See Smith v. United States, 94 U.S. 97 (1876); Allen v. Georgia, 166 U.S. 138 (1897). (2) Degen v. United Suites, 517 U.S. 820, 824 (3) Technically, the process of raising a challenge of a BIA order to the circuit courts is not called an "appeal," but rather a "petition ......

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