Hare v. Mack

Docket Number1200562
Decision Date21 January 2022
PartiesYamil Alexsander Hare and Jose Sosa v. Sheriff Hoss Mack; Stacy McElroy, individually and in his official capacity; and City of Gulf Shores
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

Appeal from Baldwin Circuit Court (CV-21-900130)

MITCHELL, JUSTICE

This appeal presents questions of first impression for this Court concerning the interplay of state and federal jurisdiction over property seized for forfeiture. Yamil Alexsander Hare and Jose Sosa filed a state-court action to recover personal property that a Gulf Shores police officer seized without a warrant under state law and then transferred to two Baldwin County Sheriff's Office ("BCSO") deputies, acting in their capacity as federally deputized agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration ("the DEA"). The circuit court ruled that it lacked in rem jurisdiction based on the Court of Civil Appeals' caselaw. We hold that, under 21 U.S.C. § 881(c), exclusive federal jurisdiction attached when the deputized DEA agents took possession of the property and no state court had prior in rem jurisdiction. Accordingly, we affirm.

Facts and Procedural History

As presented on appeal, the material facts are undisputed. On November 3, 2020, Hare was driving his black Ford F-150 pickup truck eastbound on I-10 in Baldwin County. Officer Stacy McElroy, a Gulf Shores policeman and a member of the BCSO Special Operations Unit, observed that Hare was speeding and that his paper registration tag was not clearly visible. Officer McElroy pulled Hare over for speeding and for improper display of registration. See §§ 32-5A-171 and 32-6-51, Ala. Code 1975.

As he approached the vehicle, Officer McElroy smelled a strong marijuana odor. Hare admitted that he had about a gram of marijuana with him. Hare told Officer McElroy that he was going to Disney World, but he could not give plausible answers to follow-up questions about his travel plans. Officer McElroy also discovered that Hare's driver's license was invalid. Ultimately, Officer McElroy decided to search the truck, assisted by another officer who had arrived on the scene.

In the center console of the truck, Officer McElroy found a plastic bag with a small amount of marijuana, two rubber-banded bundles of United States currency, and two cell phones (in addition to the one Hare had on him at the time of the search). Officer McElroy also discovered 10 plastic-wrapped bundles of United States currency hidden in a speaker box under the rear seat on the passenger side. Officer McElroy seized the bundles of currency and the three phones (the "personal property"), arrested Hare for possession of marijuana, and arranged for the truck to be towed to the BCSO garage.

Later that day, Officer McElroy briefed Daniel Middleton and Andrew Harville, two BCSO deputies who also belong to the local DEA Task Force. As shown by a BCSO chain-of-custody form (among other evidence), Officer McElroy physically delivered the personal property to Deputies Middleton and Harville, who then placed it in a temporary evidence vault. It was the understanding of Officer McElroy and the BCSO that the DEA Task Force had "adopted" the case at that point. In a later affidavit, Deputy Harville attested that he and Deputy Middleton had received the personal property "in [their] capacities as Federal DEA Task Force Officers."

Two days later, on November 5, 2020, the currency (totaling $101 960) was taken from the evidence vault and deposited with a bank in Foley. On November 20, Deputy Harville obtained two cashier's checks for the currency, which were temporarily placed in another evidence vault at the DEA Mobile Resident Office and then mailed (that same day) to the United States Marshals Service.

On February 4, 2021, Hare and Sosa ("the Claimants") filed a "Motion for Return of Money and Personal Property" in the Baldwin Circuit Court, naming as defendants: (1) Officer McElroy, individually and in his official capacity; (2) the City of Gulf Shores; (3) the BCSO; and (4) several fictitiously named defendants. This "motion" -- which, as all parties recognize, was in substance a complaint[1] -- alleged that the Claimants were the owners of the personal property, that there had been no judicial proceedings for its forfeiture, and that the Claimants were entitled to its return.

The defendants filed two motions to dismiss: one by "the Defendant identified ... as the 'Baldwin County Sheriff's Office,' "[2] the other by Officer McElroy and Gulf Shores. They argued that, because federal agents had adopted the case and taken possession of the personal property on November 3, 2020, the circuit court lacked in rem jurisdiction under the Court of Civil Appeals' caselaw -- specifically, the leading case of Green v. City of Montgomery, 55 So.3d 256 (Ala. Civ. App. 2009), and its progeny. In opposition, the Claimants argued in substance that the personal property was seized by Officer McElroy under state law and that its physical transfer to Deputies Middleton and Harville did not confer exclusive federal jurisdiction absent a "federal adoption" of the seizure "pursuant to legally mandated procedures," of which, the Claimants said, there was no evidence. In its reply, the BCSO repeated its argument that exclusive federal jurisdiction attached when Deputies Middleton and Harville "adopted the case and took actual, physical possession of the Personal Property on November 3, 2020." (Officer McElroy and Gulf Shores did not separately reply.)

On March 30, the circuit court concluded that it "lack[ed] in rem jurisdiction in this case" and granted the motions to dismiss. The Claimants timely moved to alter, amend, or vacate the judgment, again arguing that there was no evidence of a procedurally proper federal adoption of the seizure of the personal property. See Rule 59(e), Ala. R. Civ. P. In their responses, the defendants largely repeated their prior arguments for exclusive federal jurisdiction; they also submitted new documents, including the chain-of-custody form and Deputy Harville's affidavit, clarifying the circumstances of the November 3, 2020, handover of the personal property and its later disposition.[3] The circuit court denied the Rule 59(e) motion on May 8, 2021, and the Claimants timely appealed from the judgment.

Standard of Review

This Court has never specifically articulated the standard of review for a dismissal for lack of in rem jurisdiction. But as the Court of Civil Appeals has recognized, such dismissals are analogous to other dismissals for lack of jurisdiction (subject-matter or personal). Little v. Gaston, 232 So.3d 231, 234 (Ala. Civ. App. 2017); Gray v. City of Opelika, 216 So.3d 431, 435 (Ala. Civ. App. 2015). Little and Gray thus state that the standard of review is de novo, and most of the parties in this case follow that description.[4]

It is more exact, however, to say that we review issues of law de novo and findings of fact for clear error. In stating the standard of review as de novo (pure and simple), the parties overlook that the jurisdictional determination in this case was based on facts presented in evidentiary materials outside the pleadings. Although "courts of appeal, when reviewing Rule 12(b)(1)[, Fed. R. Civ. P., ] dismissals by [trial] courts, for a lack of subject matter jurisdiction, exercise de novo review over legal conclusions," they "examine jurisdictional findings of fact ... only for clear error." 5B Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1350 (3d ed. 2004); see also id. n.79 (collecting federal cases).[5] As it happens, the distinction between de novo and clear-error review makes no difference in this case, where the facts are undisputed. Nevertheless, we note this nuance for the sake of clarity and to provide appropriate guidance for future cases.

"In reviewing the trial court's judgment, we are not limited to the reasoning that the trial court applied but can affirm its judgment for any legal, valid reason." Dupree v. PeoplesSouth Bank, 308 So.3d 484, 489 (Ala. 2020).

Analysis

We divide our analysis into three parts. First, to properly frame the issues (which are both novel for this Court and involve numerous conceptual moving parts), we provide a high-level survey of the governing framework. Second, we discuss the Claimants' primary argument, which concerns what procedures are required to vest exclusive federal jurisdiction in adoptive-seizure cases. Finally, we address the parties' arguments concerning the Court of Civil Appeals' caselaw in this area.

A. Civil Asset Forfeiture and In Rem Jurisdiction

Both federal and Alabama law (and that of many other states) provide for civil forfeiture of property used in, intended for use in, or derived from certain crimes, including, as relevant here, controlled-substance offenses. See 21 U.S.C. § 881; former § 20-2-93, Ala. Code 1975;[6] see also 18 U.S.C. § 981; § 15-5-61, Ala. Code 1975. In Alabama, seized property can be forfeited to the State only through a judicial condemnation proceeding. See former § 20-2-93(h) (incorporating §§ 28-4-286 through 28-4-290, Ala. Code 1975, by reference). Federal law differs slightly in authorizing the summary forfeiture without judicial process --sometimes called "administrative" forfeiture -- of certain types of property in which no one claims an interest after seizure. See generally 18 U.S.C. § 883; 21 U.S.C. § 881(d) (incorporating 19 U.S.C. §1609); see also United States Department of Justice, Asset Forfeiture Policy Manual 68-69 (2021) ("Policy Manual") (outlining when administrative forfeiture is available).[7] Disputed forfeitures, however, must be adjudicated in court. See 18 U.S.C. § 883(a)(3)(A).

For a court to entertain a forfeiture proceeding, it must be able to...

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