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Hoyte v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 12, 2019

NICOYA HOYTE, et al., Plaintiffs,


          Christopher R. Cooper United States District Judge.

         In 2015, Mayor Muriel Bowser signed a bill reforming the District of Columbia's civil asset forfeiture regime. The new law was designed to better protect property owners and included a variety of procedural and substantive safeguards to achieve that goal. This case, filed in 2013, is about the old law. Plaintiffs are a group of individuals whose property was seized and held for potential forfeiture under the prior regime. They seek damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for purported violations of their constitutional due process rights. After the better part of a decade, the dismissal of myriad claims, certification of two classes, and extensive discovery, the case has arrived at the summary judgment stage. As it stands, four claims remain: two that have been certified for class-wide resolution and two that have not.

         This Opinion deals only with the two non-class claims. In the first of those claims (Claim Seven in Plaintiffs' complaint), all ten remaining Plaintiffs allege that the District unconstitutionally failed to return their property promptly after determining it was not subject to forfeiture. The Court will grant the District's motion for summary judgment as to five of those Plaintiffs who did not lay claim to the property. For the remaining five Plaintiffs, however, the Court will deny both parties' motion for summary judgment and allow the case to proceed to trial. As for the second non-class claim (Claim Fourteen)-which alleges that the District arbitrarily denied or dissuaded property owners from seeking waivers of a bond requirement to challenge the forfeiture-the Court will grant the District's motion for summary judgment because, on the facts presented, no reasonable jury could find in Plaintiffs' favor.

         I. Background

         A. Legal Background

         In 2015, the Council of the District of Columbia reformed the city's civil asset forfeiture law, adding protections for owners of seized property. See Civil Asset Forfeiture Amendment Act of 2014, 62 D.C. Reg. 1, 920 (Feb. 13, 2015). Until then, the District's forfeiture scheme had been largely unaltered since 1981. The revamped law has changed many of the aspects of the prior version that gave rise to this case. Nevertheless, the District remains liable for damages stemming from any constitutional infirmities in the law's prior iteration.

         The seizures and forfeitures of Plaintiffs' property were governed by former D.C. Code § 48-905.02 (2012). Under this statute, the Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) had authority to seize vehicles, currency, or other property if there were probable cause to believe the property was the proceeds of a crime or used to commit a crime. Id. §§ 48-905.02(a), (d)(3)(A). Once property was seized, the Mayor was obligated to provide notice to those persons having “a right of claim to the seized property.” Id. § 48-905.02(d)(3)(A). Upon receiving notice, the property owner could assert an ownership interest in the property by paying a bond-either $2, 500 or ten percent of the appraised property value (whichever was lower). Id. § 48- 905.02(d)(3)(B). A claimant could request a bond reduction or waiver. D.C. Mun. Regs. 6-A § 806.6-7.

         If the claimant paid the bond (or received a waiver), the District could initiate judicial forfeiture proceedings in District of Columbia Superior Court. D.C. Code § 48-905.02(d)(3)(E) (2012). Absent a bond or waiver, the property was subject to administrative forfeiture. To pursue administrative forfeiture, the Mayor's delegee, the MPD Property Clerk, had to first determine whether the property was forfeitable. Id. § 48-905.02(d)(3)(C); D.C. Mun. Regs. 6-A § 805. If the property was deemed forfeitable, the owner was permanently dispossessed of the property. D.C. Code § 48-905.02(d)(4) (2012). If it was deemed not forfeitable, the District was obligated to return it to the owner. Id. § 48-905.02(d)(3)(C).

         B. Factual Background

         The Court has discussed the facts of this case at length in two previous opinions. See Hoyte v. District of Columbia, 325 F.R.D. 485 (D.D.C. 2017); Brown v. District of Columbia, 115 F.Supp.3d 56 (D.D.C. 2015). Here, the Court will briefly outline the facts relevant to each Plaintiff's non-class claims.

         1. Nicoya Hoyte

         In May 2012, Nicoya Hoyte was arrested at her Washington, D.C. home along with two roommates after police executed a search warrant and found marijuana and weapons. See Pls.' Response to Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (“SUMF”), ECF No. 208-1, ¶ 11.[1]MPD seized her 2000 Mercury Grand Marquis-valued at $5, 350-and $1, 540 cash incident to the arrest. Id.; Declaration of Jerrell Carter Supp. Def.'s Opp'n to Pls.' Mot. Partial Summ. J. and Cross-Mot. Summ J. (“Carter Decl.”), ECF No. 192-8, at 69-76, ¶ 6(a).[2] MPD placed the car and currency under a civil forfeiture hold. Carter Decl. ¶ 6(c). Hoyte was criminally processed but prosecutors dropped the charges against her. SUMF ¶¶ 12-13. The MPD Evidence Control Branch's (“ECB”) database, EvidenceOnQue, indicates that a notice of intent to forfeit the car was generated May 24, 2012. Id. ¶ 15; Carter Decl. ¶ 6(b).[3] The parties dispute whether this notice was mailed to Hoyte or, if so, whether she received it.[4] See SUMF ¶ 15. What is clear is that she went to the ECB on July 7, 2012 and signed a note indicating she was “in receipt” of the notice. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. LL, ECF No. 192-8, at 62. Hoyte paid a bond on the vehicle. SUMF ¶ 16. On April 11, 2013, D.C.'s Office of the Attorney General released its hold on the property, indicating it would not pursue civil forfeiture proceedings. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. MM, ECF No. 192-8, at 66. Eight days later, the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia released any evidentiary hold on the vehicle, id. at 67, whereupon Hoyte retrieved the vehicle on April 29, 2013, see Carter Decl. ¶ 6(d). The Office of the Attorney General did not release the hold on the currency until over two years later, on August 17, 2015, and Hoyte retrieved it two days later. See ECF No. 220-3, at 46-48 (MPD property release documentation).

         2. Kelly Hughes

         MPD seized Kelly Hughes's 2006 Dodge Magnum-valued at $9, 825-on February 28, 2013. SUMF ¶ 17; Carter Decl. ¶ 7(a). According to police records, an MPD drug sniffing dog “got a hit on the vehicle.” Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. A, ECF No. 192-5, at 3. MPD placed evidentiary and forfeiture holds on the vehicle. SUMF ¶ 18. Ms. Hughes was never charged with a crime related to the incident. See Affidavit of Kelly Hughes (“Hughes Aff.”), ECF No. 220-3, at 24-28, ¶ 16. EvidenceOnQue shows a notice of intent to forfeit was generated on March 21, 2013. SUMF ¶ 19; see also supra note 3. On April 2, 2013, Hughes went to the ECB to inquire about her vehicle and received in-person notice of the intent to forfeit. SUMF ¶ 20. The notice required Hughes to pay a $982 bond; she avers that, instead of paying, she contacted the D.C. Public Defender Service, which helped her recover her vehicle. Hughes Aff. ¶¶ 28-29. The holds were lifted on May 1, 2013. Carter Decl. ¶ 7(c). Hughes retrieved her vehicle on May 24, 2013. SUMF ¶ 21.

         3. Jarrett Acey

         On October 30, 2010, MPD officers arrested Jarrett Acey for possession with intent to distribute MDMA. Officers seized $1, 516 in cash from Mr. Acey for forfeiture. SUMF ¶ 39; Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. R, ECF No. 192-7, at 49-52. MPD sent a notice to administratively forfeit the property to Acey's mother's home, which was the address on his arrest report. SUMF ¶ 40. The parties dispute whether the address was listed on his arrest report because he provided it to MPD when arrested or because officers took it from his driver's license. Id. In any case, Acey saw the notice at his mother's home when visiting her in 2013, prompting him to call MPD to update his address. Id. ¶¶ 41-42. MPD sent a second notice to Acey at the address he provided. By the time he received that notice, the property had already been forfeited. Id. ¶ 42.

         4. Julius Gordon & Marilyn Langley

         In February 2011, MPD officers arrested Julius Gordon and Marilyn Langley for distribution and possession of Suboxone, respectively. See ECF No. 220-5, at 79-81 (arrest report). They seized $49 in connection with the arrest, $44 from Mr. Gordon and $5 from Ms. Langley.[5] SUMF ¶¶ 43-44, 47. Prosecutors declined to prosecute either individual. Carter Decl. ¶¶ 12(d), 13(c). Two years later, ECB sent a notice to Gordon at the address he gave MPD. See ECF No. 220-5, at 82-83 (notice dated March 5, 2012). He did not pay a bond or apply for a waiver and maintains he never received notice. No. notice was sent to Langley. The $49 was forfeited. SUMF ¶¶ 46, 49.

         5. Terrence Thomas

         MPD executed a search warrant on the home of David Littlepage, which he shared with his son Terrence Thomas. SUMF ¶ 51. Officers arrested Mr. Littlepage and seized $340 in cash during the search, apparently from under Mr. Thomas's mattress.[6] Id. ECB sent three notices to Littlepage after identifying him as the property owner. Id. ¶ 52. According to Littlepage, upon receiving these notices, he told ECB that the money belonged to his son. See Affidavit of David Littlepage, ECF No. 177-4 9, ¶ 10. He later signed a “release to owner” form and picked up the money from ECB. SUMF ¶ 54; Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. FF, ECF No. 192-8, at 30-51.

         6. Shane Lucas

         MPD seized $814 from Shane Lucas on October 3, 2012 upon his arrest for possession of an open container of alcohol. SUMF ¶ 56; Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. II, ECF No. 192-8, at 37- 40. MPD officers found drugs on his person during a search incident to the arrest and charged him with drug possession. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. II, ECF No. 192-8, at 37-40. The charges were later dismissed. Carter Decl. ¶ 15(e). The ECB database shows two notices were mailed, one to the address on Lucas's driver's license and one, sent six months later, to the address he provided to MPD when arrested. SUMF ¶¶ 57-59; see also supra note 3. On November 7, 2013, was seized from Gordon and $5 was seized from Ms. Langley. See, e.g., ECF No. 220-5, at 79- 81 (arrest report); id. at 77-78 (property record); id. at 82-83 (notice mailed to Mr. Gordon regarding $44). D.C.'s Office of Attorney General sent a memorandum to the ECB indicating that the crime with which Lucas was charged did not permit forfeiture and that the money should be returned to him. ECF No. 177-51. On February 7, 2014, Lucas was told he could pick up his money at ECB, which he did later that day. SUMF ¶¶ 61-62.

         7. Romona Person

         MPD seized Romona Person's 2010 Nissan Altima in November 2012. Id. ¶ 27. She contacted the ECB to inquire about the car and was given a notice of intent to forfeit the vehicle. Id. ΒΆ 29. Ms. Person neither paid a bond nor applied for a bond waiver. Instead, she ...

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