U.S. v. Mondragon

Decision Date13 December 2002
Docket NumberNo. 01-2434.,01-2434.
Citation313 F.3d 862
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Lolita MONDRAGON, Claimant-Appellant, and $500,684 in U.S. Currency, Defendant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Bruce Wallace Simon, Kansas City, Missouri, for Appellant. Richard Charles Kay, Assistant United States Attorney, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

Joseph S. Lyons, Towson, Maryland, for Appellant. Thomas M. DiBiagio, United States Attorney, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

Before MICHAEL, Circuit Judge, HAMILTON, Senior Circuit Judge, and HILTON, Chief United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge MICHAEL wrote the opinion, in which Senior Judge HAMILTON and Chief Judge HILTON joined.

OPINION

MICHAEL, Circuit Judge.

The claimant in this civil forfeiture case appeals an order denying her motion to strike the government's complaint for failing to meet the particularity in pleading requirement of Rule E(2)(a) of the Supplemental Rules for Certain Admiralty and Maritime Claims (the Supplemental Rules). We affirm.

I.

On February 19, 2000, Sergeant Paul Quill of the Maryland State Police stopped a Lincoln Town Car with Kansas tags as it was traveling west on Interstate 70 near Frederick. Sergeant Quill made the stop after he saw the Lincoln dart across two lanes of traffic without a signal. The driver identified herself as Lolita Mondragon and handed over a Kansas driver's license. Sergeant Quill ran a check and discovered that Mondragon's license had been revoked. Mondragon then gave verbal and written consent to allow the sergeant to search the car. In the course of the search Sergeant Quill discovered, behind the back seat, a hidden compartment with electronic spring locks. According to the sergeant, the installation job was of professional quality. He had seen many such secret compartments and knew they were routinely used by drug traffickers to transport large quantities of drugs as well as the cash proceeds from drug transactions. Inside this compartment Sergeant Quill found nearly $500,000 in cash, sealed in fifteen plastic bags. A drug detection dog from the Frederick police department gave a positive alert to the back seat area of the car. Mondragon was arrested for driving on a revoked license. Her purse was then searched, and an additional $5,900 in cash was found. Sergeant Quill issued a traffic citation to Mondragon, and she was released. The currency, which had been seized, was turned over to the U.S. Customs Service. Mondragon filed an administrative claim to the money.

On November 30, 2000, the government filed a verified complaint in the District of Maryland, seeking forfeiture of the currency on the ground that it was the proceeds of drug trafficking, see 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and was involved in a money laundering transaction, see 18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(A)(i). (The government did not pursue the money laundering allegation.) The complaint incorporated a joint affidavit, executed by Sergeant Quill and a U.S. Customs Agent, setting forth the facts recounted above. Mondragon, as claimant, filed a motion to strike the complaint, arguing that it failed to state the grounds for forfeiture with the particularity required by Rule E(2)(a) of the Supplemental Rules. The district court denied the motion. Mondragon then filed an answer to the complaint, stating that she was without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of the charging allegations. After deposing Mondragon, the government made a motion for summary judgment that was not opposed. The district court granted this motion and entered a final order of forfeiture. Mondragon appeals, contesting only the district court's order denying her motion to strike the complaint. Whether the complaint, including the incorporated affidavit, satisfies the particularity requirement of Rule E(2)(a) is a legal question that we review de novo. United States v. United States Currency, in the Amount of $150,660, 980 F.2d 1200, 1204 (8th Cir.1992).

II.
A.

A civil forfeiture complaint against property allegedly connected to drug trafficking must meet the particularity in pleading requirement of Supplemental Rule E(2)(a). See 21 U.S.C. § 881(b), (d); United States v. One Parcel of Real Property, 921 F.2d 370, 373-74 (1st Cir.1990). Rule E(2)(a) requires the complaint to "state the circumstances from which the claim arises with such particularity that the defendant or claimant will be able, without moving for a more definite statement, to commence an investigation of the facts and to frame a responsive pleading." Mondragon argues that the government's complaint lacks the factual detail necessary to satisfy Rule E(2)(a).

Our court has not discussed the particularity requirement of Rule E(2)(a). The leading case on the subject is Riverway Co. v. Spivey Marine and Harbor Service Co., 598 F.Supp. 909 (S.D.Ill.1984), an in rem proceeding against a tugboat. The court in Riverway said that vessel owners "are entitled to freedom from the threat of seizure of their livelihood upon conclusory allegations and dubious circumstances." Id. at 913. Rule E(2)(a)'s requirement for "[p]leading specific circumstances is one part of the process which guards against the improper use of admiralty seizure proceedings." Id. Thus, the rule's "heightened particularity in pleading requirement[]" is "always subject to the general standard that the complaint sufficiently notify the defendant of the incident in dispute and afford a reasonable belief that the claim has merit." Id.

Several circuit courts have interpreted Rule E(2)(a) in evaluating government complaints for the civil forfeiture of property allegedly connected to illegal activity. Almost all of these courts adopt a form of Riverway's "reasonable belief that the claim has merit" standard. They begin their analysis by saying that Rule E(2)(a) requires a complaint to allege sufficient facts to support a reasonable belief that the property is subject to forfeiture. See United States v. $38,000 in United States Currency, 816 F.2d 1538, 1548 (11th Cir. 1987); United States v. Pole No. 3172, 852 F.2d 636, 638 (1st Cir.1988); United States v. 2323 Charms Rd., 946 F.2d 437, 441 (6th Cir.1991); United States Currency, in the Amount of $150,660, 980 F.2d at 1204-05. These courts go on to hold more specifically that the complaint must allege sufficient facts to support a reasonable belief that the government can demonstrate probable cause for forfeiture at trial. $38,000 in United States Currency, 816 F.2d at 1548; Pole No. 3172, 852 F.2d at 640; 2323 Charms Rd., 946 F.2d at 441; United States v. U.S. Currency, in the Amount of $150,660.00, 980 F.2d at 1205; see also United States v. Daccarett, 6 F.3d 37, 47 (2d Cir.1993).

The pleading requirement of a "reasonable belief that probable cause can be shown at trial" was apparently keyed to the government's burden of proof at the time (prior to 2000) these cases were decided. See Daccarett, 6 F.3d at 47. Before Congress enacted the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA), Pub.L. No. 106-185, 114 Stat. 202, 205, the government's trial burden was to show probable cause for forfeiture; the burden of proof then shifted to the claimant. See United States v. Leak, 123 F.3d 787, 792 (4th Cir.1997); 19 U.S.C. § 1615 (superceded by 18 U.S.C. § 938(c)(1)). Now, after CAFRA's enactment, the government must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the property is subject to forfeiture. 18 U.S.C. § 983(c)(1).

In light of CAFRA's change in the burden of proof, it is a bit awkward to say now that Rule E(2)(a) requires the complaint to allege facts sufficient to support a reasonable belief that the government can establish probable cause for forfeiture at trial. We therefore decline to adopt this interpretation of Rule E(2)(a). A useful point survives the pre-CAFRA opinions, however. As we have said, most of these opinions begin by recognizing the general standard that a complaint under Rule E(2)(a) must allege sufficient facts to support a reasonable belief that the property is subject to forfeiture. We, too, adopt this general standard.

There is a more basic point, however. Rule E(2)(a) needs little interpretation. It is plainly written and "means precisely what it says." $38,000 in United States Currency, 816 F.2d at 1548. Again, the rule says, "the complaint shall state the circumstances from which the claim arises with such particularity that the defendant or claimant will be able, without moving for a more definite statement, to commence an investigation of the facts and to frame a responsive pleading." Supplemental Rule E(2)(a). We will evaluate the government's complaint in light of the language of the rule, keeping in mind that the complaint must at bottom allege facts sufficient to support a reasonable belief that the property is subject to forfeiture.

B.

Because Rule E(2)(a) requires the complaint to "state the circumstances from which the claim arises," we begin with the bare bones of the government's claim. The government alleged that the...

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