The opinion of the court was delivered by: SPORKIN
Plaintiff, a prisoner who is proceeding pro se, seeks the return of certain property seized by the Drug Enforcement Agency upon his arrest on November 29, 1993 and administratively forfeited pursuant to 21 U.S.C. §§ 881(a)(4) and 881(a)(6).
He alleges that: (1) his Fifth Amendment due process rights were violated when the DEA failed to provide sufficient and timely notice of civil forfeiture proceedings related to the seizure of a 1987 Chevrolet Sprint and $ 9,870 in U.S. currency; and (2) the government failed to comply with 21 U.S.C. § 888, which provides for expedited procedures for seized conveyances. Plaintiff also claims that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the search warrant pursuant to which the property was seized was defective. The government moves to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The Court has considered the government's motion and the opposition thereto.
On November 29, 1993, a Florida State search warrant was executed by the Washington County (Florida) Sheriff's Department on 40 acres of timberland owned by Plaintiff near Chipley, Florida. During the search, several hundred marijuana plants, growing equipment, $ 9,780.00 in U.S. currency (the "U.S. Currency") secreted under a mobile home roof, and a 1987 Chevrolet Sprint (the "Sprint") were found and seized. The government claims that Plaintiff facilitated the seizure of the Sprint by providing the keys to it. On this same date, Plaintiff was arrested for his activities related to the cultivation of marijuana. While being transported to the Washington County jail, Plaintiff questioned DEA Special Agent Brian McLaurin regarding the status of the U.S. Currency and the Sprint (collectively, the "Seized Property") and was informed that both were being seized for federal forfeiture (Brian E. McLaurin Aff. P 4).
On December 15, 1993, Plaintiff was indicted by a United States Grand Jury in Tallahassee, Florida on charges of manufacturing and distributing marijuana. An $ 150,000 secured bond was set with the condition that plaintiff be released into the custody of Linda Burger. Plaintiff never posted bail and remained continuously in federal custody.
On January 18, 1994, DEA mailed notices of its seizure and proposed forfeiture of the Sprint and the U.S. Currency by certified mail, return receipt requested, to Plaintiff's last known mailing address in Chipley, Florida (with respect to the U.S. Currency) and the address listed on the Sprint's registration in Bonifax, Florida (with respect to the Sprint). These notices informed Plaintiff that he would be permitted to file a claim and cost bond to contest the seizures. Plaintiff's friend, Linda Burger,
accepted delivery of the notice related to the Sprint on February 3, 1994, and her daughter, Dottie Burger, accepted delivery of the notice related to the U.S. Currency on February 1, 1994.
On January 31, 1994, DEA mailed notices of its seizure and the proposed forfeiture of the Sprint and the U.S. Currency by certified mail, return receipt requested, to Philip W. Scott, Bay County Jail, Panama City, Florida, Plaintiff's place of incarceration. This notice granted plaintiff an additional twenty (20) days from receipt to file a claim and cost bond, or an In Forma Pauperis affidavit, to contest the forfeiture. The notice of seizure with respect to the U.S. Currency was signed for by a Bay County Jail prison official on February 10, 1994. The notice of seizure with respect to the Sprint, however, was returned to DEA by the post office as "undeliverable," apparently because the state and zip code on the mailing address were partially obscured.
On February 9, 1994, pursuant to 21 C.F.R. § 1316.75, the notices of seizure and proposed forfeiture of both the seized U.S. currency and the Sprint were initially published in USA TODAY, a newspaper of general circulation in the Northern District of Florida. The notices were published for three consecutive weeks, on February 9, 16, and 23, 1994. Each notice stated that the last date to file a claim and cost bond or an affidavit of indigency with DEA to contest the seizure in federal court was March 1, 1994.
After the notice of seizure and intended forfeiture of the Sprint was returned to DEA by the post office as "undeliverable," DEA mailed a second set of notices on February 28, 1994, for both the U.S. Currency and the Sprint, to Plaintiff who had been moved to the Escambia County Jail, Pensacola, Florida. Those notices granted Plaintiff an additional twenty days from receipt to file a claim and cost bond, or an affidavit of indigency. On March 1, 1994, however, Plaintiff was apparently moved back to the Bay County Jail from the Escambia County Jail. The notices sent to Escambia County Jail were returned to DEA with the envelope stamped "RETURN TO SENDER...MOVED, LEFT NO ADDRESS."
On February 7, 1994, Plaintiff filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized in the November 29, 1993 search. The evidence that Plaintiff sought to suppress included the U.S. Currency and the Sprint. On February 16, 1994, a hearing was held on Plaintiff's motion to suppress. The United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida denied Plaintiff's motion. Plaintiff appealed the district court's ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which affirmed the lower court's ruling on March 1, 1995. United States v. Phillip Scott, 49 F.3d 732 (11th Cir. 1995). Plaintiff's petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court was denied on October 2, 1995. Scott v. United States, 133 L. Ed. 2d 66, 116 S. Ct. 115 (1995).
On February 16, 1994, Plaintiff pled guilty and was subsequently sentenced to 120 months incarceration in a federal correctional facility with an additional 96 months of supervised release. Following the plea, in a March 14, 1994, letter to Investigator Ricky Sewell of the Washington County Sheriff's Department, Plaintiff released claim to "any and all property seized resulting from a search warrant issued by Washington County Judge Allen Register on November 29, 1994."
On April 15, 1994, since DEA had not received either a claim and cost bond or In Forma Pauperis affidavit, and the time limit for having filed either the bond or the affidavit having passed, the government issued Declarations of Forfeiture for the Seized Property.
Almost a year later, on February 9, 1995, DEA received a letter from Plaintiff, who was then incarcerated at the federal correctional facility in Marianna, Florida, requesting information regarding the forfeitures of the Seized Property. In response, DEA sent Plaintiff a letter on February 28, 1995, enclosing a copy of the notices of seizure dated February 28, 1994, which had been sent to plaintiff at the Escambia County Jail. These notices granted Plaintiff an additional twenty days from receipt to file a claim and cost bond or an In Forma Pauperis affidavit, but DEA admits that the notices were confusing in this respect. Plaintiff states that he did not understand that the February 28, 1995 correspondence with the DEA presented a new opportunity to contest the forfeiture. In any event, Plaintiff did not seek clarification of the DEA's February 28, 1995 letter. Plaintiff has not corresponded further with the DEA regarding the Seized Property.
Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on April 2, 1996. He alleged that: (1) his Fifth Amendment due process rights were violated when the DEA failed to provide sufficient and timely notice of civil forfeiture proceedings related to the Seized Property and (2) the government failed to comply with 21 U.S.C. § 888, which provides for expedited procedures for seized conveyances. He amended his complaint on July 22, 1996 to assert further that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the search warrant pursuant to which his property was seized was defective. He asks for the return of the Seized Property and damages. The government challenges Plaintiff's standing to bring this action and has also responded substantively.
The Court finds for the government on both its procedural and substantive defenses to Plaintiff's claims. After discussing the standards for summary judgment, we will address standing and then deal with Plaintiff's claims.
SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment shall be rendered if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c).
In Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986), the Supreme Court outlined the ...