Monday, December 05, 2011

Criminal forfeiture of assets affirmed

US v. Martin, et al.: The Appellants in this case challenged the district court’s criminal forfeiture orders concerning the seizure of property purportedly connected to their drug crimes. The government initially moved civilly to forfeit the property, and following the filing of the fourth superseding indictment, filed criminal forfeiture warrants for the same property.

Appellant Martin argued that the government violated the pre-trial civil forfeiture statute, which renders the later criminal forfeiture invalid. Collectively, the appellants argued that the district court lacked jurisdiction to order the criminal forfeiture (which occurred after their sentences and entry of judgments against them).

With respect to Appellant Martin’s issue, the Fourth Circuit stated that even assuming the government did seize the property at issue illegally (which it declined to decide), the illegal seizure of property does not immunize that property from forfeiture as long as the government can sustain the claim with independent evidence, citing to a 2007 First Circuit case, United States v. Pierre, for support. Here, Martin did not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence produced by the government, independent of the property, to justify the forfeiture; so, the Fourth Circuit rejected this challenge.

The jurisdiction claim failed because of a Supreme Court decision, Dolan v. United States, which guided the Fourth Circuit here to held that missing the deadline under Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.2 for finalizing forfeiture orders at the time of sentencing, does not deprive a district court of jurisdiction to enter orders of criminal forfeiture so long as the sentencing court has clarified prior to sentencing that it intends to order the forfeiture. In Dolan, the Supreme Court provided an analytical structure for examining a statute that sets forth a deadline without specifying a consequence for missing the deadline (e.g., a defendant is ordered to pay restitution to the victim of the crime, and the statute says that the court shall set a date for the determination of the victim’s losses, not to exceed 90 days after sentencing).

The Fourth Circuit considered the kind of deadline in this forfeiture case as a "time-related directive," or the most forgiving type of deadline. This type of deadline is "legally enforceable but does not deprive a judge or other public official of the power to take action to which the deadline applies if the deadline is missed," citing Dolan. The deadline was held not to bar the district court’s exercise of jurisdiction, stating that the purpose of the deadline was not to create a coercive sanction, but to ensure the defendant’s notice of any and all aspects of sentencing, including forfeiture. There was no dispute here that appellants had notice prior to sentencing that a forfeiture was pending at their sentencing.

The dissent argued that the majority’s holding will allow courts to subject defendants to the punishment of forfeiture without discussing it at sentencing or ordering it in judgment, if the defendant has notice that such punishment may be ordered. Also, Judge Gregory argued that the majority took Dolan out of context and expanded the breadth of its holding into a qualitatively separate area of the law. Dolan, the dissent stated, was limited to restitution cases in which the amount of restitution was not yet determined; moreover, the restitution and forfeiture statutory schemes have differing purposes and structures.

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