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Hoyte v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 27, 2017

NICKOYA HOYTE, et al., [1] Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, United States District Judge

         Over a dozen plaintiffs have sued the District of Columbia for damages stemming from the seizure of their property incident to arrests that took place between 2010 and 2013. The seizures were effected under the city's former asset forfeiture statute, which authorized the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) to seize and seek civil forfeiture of any property that it had probable cause to believe was involved in criminal activity, whether or not the property was owned by the arrestee. Plaintiffs contend that various aspects of the former law, and MPD's implementation of it, violated their Constitutional due process rights.

         Since the filing of this case in 2013, the Court has dismissed a number of specific claims and Plaintiffs have voluntarily jettisoned others. Five claims survive, all of which involve seizures of property, mainly cars, for the sole purpose of civil forfeiture. Plaintiffs now seek class certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 with respect to four of the remaining claims. These four claims allege: that the now-repealed law denied Plaintiffs a prompt and meaningful opportunity to seek the interim release of their property pending an ultimate forfeiture determination (Claim Three); that the District failed to take reasonable steps to notify property owners that their property had been seized and was subject to forfeiture (Claim Five); that MPD failed to return seized cars to their owners after it determined that the cars were no longer subject to forfeiture (Claim Seven); and that MPD routinely denied (and discouraged applications for) waivers of the statute's requirement that property owners post a cash bond in order to challenge the forfeiture (Claim Fourteen). For the reasons that follow, the Court will certify Claims Three and Five for class action treatment, but will decline to certify Claims Seven and Fourteen.

         I. Background

         A. Civil Forfeiture in the District of Columbia

         The District's civil forfeiture regime existed without meaningful reform from 1981 to 2015. See D.C. Code § 48-905.02. Under the former statute, once MPD officers seized property, the District was required to provide notice to any person having “a right of claim to the seized property.” Id. § 48-905.02(d)(3)(A). After receiving such notice, an owner needed to file a claim and pay a bond of the lower of $2, 500 or 10 percent of the appraised value of the property-but not less than $250-in order to assert an interest in the property and contest the forfeiture. Id. § 48-905.02(d)(3)(B). A potential claimant could request a waiver or reduction of the bond requirement, based on indigency. D.C. Mun. Regs. 6-A § 806.6-7. Once an owner paid the bond (or secured a waiver), the District initiated civil forfeiture proceedings in D.C. Superior Court. D.C. Code § 48-905.02(d)(3)(E). But if the owner failed to pay the bond or to request a waiver, the MPD itself determined, ex parte, whether the property was forfeitable. Id. at § 48-905.02(d)(3)(C). If the property was deemed forfeitable, the owner was permanently dispossessed of ownership. Id. at § 48-905.02(d)(4). The former statute further provided that if the property “is not deemed forfeitable under this chapter and is not otherwise subject to forfeiture, the [District] shall return the property to its rightful owner.” Id. at § 48-905.02(d)(3)(C).

         The Council of the District of Columbia amended the civil forfeiture law in 2015. See Civil Asset Forfeiture Amendment Act of 2014, 62 D.C. Reg. 1, 920 (Feb. 13, 2015). Among other changes, the new law shifted the burden of proof in forfeiture hearings from the property owner to the government, eliminated drug possession as a forfeitable offense, and gave owners an opportunity to request the interim release of their property. Id. Notwithstanding these reforms, the District remains liable for any Constitutional deficiencies in the pre-amendment forfeiture regime.

         B. Legal Claims and Procedural Background

         The specific allegations raised by the representative Plaintiffs are recounted in the Court's prior ruling on the District's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint. See Brown v. District of Columbia, 115 F.Supp.3d 56 (D.D.C. 2015). Plaintiffs filed suit on April 25, 2013, bringing a total of sixteen different claims under both the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. The District subsequently moved to dismiss the suit. The Court partially granted the District's motion in August 2015, striking all but five of the claims. See id. at 56. The parties then proceeded to a lengthy period of discovery, and Plaintiffs moved for class certification on all surviving claims except for Claim Ten, as described above.

         C. Proposed Class Definitions

         Plaintiffs propose the following class definitions for Claims Three, Five, Seven, and Fourteen[2]:

Claim Three
[Claim Three consists of] each person whose vehicle at any time during the period beginning three years before the date of filing of the original complaint (4/25/13) and ending on June 2015 (1) had been taken by the District of Columbia for civil forfeiture and was being detained in the custody of the Mayor; or (2) was taken for civil forfeiture and detained in the custody of the Mayor; and (3) was not given a prompt post seizure hearing within five days from the date of taking, or within 35 days of the date of taking if a prosecution relating to the vehicle was initiated and the vehicle was also held for investigation or evidence.

Pl.'s MCC, Proposed Order 2.

Claim Five
[Claim Five consists of] each person (who was not a member of either of the Hardy classes) whose property at any time during the period beginning three years before the date of filing of the original complaint (4/25/13) up until the termination of this action (1) had been taken by the District of Columbia for civil forfeiture and was being detained in the custody of the Mayor; or (2) was taken for civil forfeiture and detained in the custody of the Mayor; and (3) did not receive Notice of Intent to Administratively Forfeit the Following Property.
Id.
Claim Seven [Claim Seven consists of] each person whose property at any time during the period beginning three years before the date of filing of the original complaint (4/25/13) up until the termination of this action (1) had been taken by the District of Columbia for civil forfeiture and was being detained in the custody of the Mayor; or (2) was taken for civil forfeiture and detained in the custody of the Mayor; and (3) the District did not (i) return the property or (ii) send notice and provide a hearing regarding the owner's right to the property (4) within two weeks after the latter of (a) the Property Clerk or the Office of Attorney General determined that the property was not subject to forfeiture, or (b) 90 days if the District did not conduct a forfeiture determination by that time.
Id. at 2-3.
Claim Fourteen
[Claim Fourteen consists of] all persons who had been declared CJA eligible or who satisfied the in forma pauperis criteria of the Superior Court at the time their property was taken, whose property at any time during the three year period beginning three years before the date of filing of the original complaint (4/25/13) and ending on 8/22/2013 when the District adopted the Superior Court criteria for evaluating a litigant's in forma pauperis status (1) had been taken for civil forfeiture and was being detained by the District for civil forfeiture or (2) was taken and detained for civil forfeiture; and (3) was declared forfeited in a Mayor's forfeiture determination hearing or who lost the property in a judicial forfeiture proceeding for non payment of the penal bond.

Id. at 3.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a)

         “The class action is an exception to the usual rule that litigation is conducted by and on behalf of the individual named parties only.” Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S.Ct. 1426, 1432 (2013). To be certified as a class, Plaintiffs must meet the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. All putative classes must first meet the four requirements set forth in Rule 23(a), which provides that class certification is appropriate only if:

(1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable; (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class; (3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class; and (4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.

Fed. R. Civ. P 23(a). These four requirements are colloquially referred to as numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy. See Parker v. Bank of America, N.A., 99 F.Supp.3d 69, 78 (D.D.C. 2015) (citing Amgen Inc. v. Conn. Ret. Plans & Trust Funds, 133 S.Ct. 1184, 1191 (2013)). Additionally, some courts have imposed an “implied” fifth requirement that the class be adequately defined and clearly ascertainable-the purpose of which is to “require[ ] plaintiffs to be able to establish that the general outlines of the membership of the class are determinable at the outset of litigation.” Thorpe ...


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