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UNITED STATES v. $38

United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, E. D


October 17, 1980

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
$38,394 U.S. CURRENCY, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Shadur, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff United States of America ("the government") instituted this forfeiture proceeding pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881(a), alleging that:

  1.  Government agents had seized $38,394 ("the
      currency") from Apartment 304 at 4734 West
      Washington, Chicago, Illinois, while "acting
      under authority of law."

  2.  Alternatively, the currency was furnished or
      intended to be furnished in exchange for a
      controlled substance in violation of federal
      law or constitutes proceeds traceable to such
      an exchange, or was used or intended to be
      used to facilitate a violation of Title 21,
      Chapter 13 of the United States Code.

Henry White ("White") has filed a claim of ownership interest in the currency and has moved for summary judgment, asserting that this Court's ruling in a prior action precludes forfeiture of the currency in this action. For the reasons discussed below, White's motion is granted.

The Facts

On March 12, 1980 White and three other persons were arrested on drug charges and gun possession charges in a first floor apartment at 4734 West Washington. Immediately thereafter government agents searched Apartment 304 in the same building, found the currency in Crown Royal bags in a closet of that apartment and took possession of the currency. Prior to the trial of White and his co-defendants under the indictment charging the substantive offenses, White filed a motion under Fed.R. Crim.P. 41(e) for the return of the currency. During the pre-trial hearing on that motion the parties offered conflicting evidence as to White's consent or the lack of consent for the search and as to the circumstances of the search. On July 9, 1980 this Court ordered the currency returned to White because it had been illegally seized.*fn1 This forfeiture action was promptly filed by the government.

Discussion

In support of his motion for summary judgment White relies on the transcript of the pre-trial proceeding in the criminal case and invokes the doctrine of collateral estoppel. In response the government asserts the inapplicability of collateral estoppel because, in its view:

  1.  the issues adjudicated in the prior
      proceeding are not dispositive of the present
      claim; and

  2.  the government did not have the opportunity
      to litigate the forfeiture issues fully in
      the prior proceeding.

Just as in the earlier proceeding, the Court views the parties as having failed to focus, at least in part, on the precise issues in the case. Although each party has phrased the collateral estoppel question solely in terms of whether "probable cause" was litigated earlier, the actual language of the Complaint — which defines the government's burden — is that the government's agents seized the currency "acting under authority of law."

Were that not the case — were the narrow issue here that relating to claimed relitigation of "probable cause" — White's motion for summary judgment would have to be denied. There is no question that the Court's decision in the earlier proceeding necessarily involved a holding that the government lacked probable cause to seize the currency as an incident to White's arrest. But the issue sought to be litigated here, though also expressed as a question of "probable cause," is not necessarily limited to the same question. Like Animal Farm, in which all animals are equal but some are more equal than others, it does not necessarily follow that probable cause is probable cause is probable cause.*fn2 In this forfeiture proceeding the question characterized as "probable cause" is whether (21 U.S.C. § 881(b)(4)) there was at the time the Complaint was filed "probable cause to believe that the [currency] has been used or is intended to be used in violation of" the chapter dealing with drug offenses. That question was plainly not litigated in the prior proceeding.

But the matter does not end with that conclusion. This Court did specifically hold in the earlier proceeding that the seizure was illegal. United States v. One Residence and Attached Garage, 603 F.2d 1231, 1234 (7th Cir. 1979):

  Property of private citizens simply cannot be
  seized and held in an effort to compel the
  possessor to "prove lawful possession."

Accordingly collateral estoppel unquestionably operates to bar the government from reasserting that the seizure was "under authority of law." Thus if Complaint Paragraph 2 is necessary to the government's cause of action, the Complaint must be dismissed and the Court's order for delivery of the currency to White, entered in the earlier proceeding, controls.

That conclusion in turn leads to the question whether the government is then free simply to reinstate new forfeiture proceedings. It is a necessary element of a forfeiture action (an in rem proceeding) that the government have possession of the property sought to be forfeited. Here the government presently has such possession, but only as the result of what has been determined (conclusively for purposes of this proceeding, by reason of collateral estoppel) to be its own illegal seizure, a violation of White's Fourth Amendment rights. But for that illegal seizure the government would not have the possession that is a condition precedent to a forfeiture action.

This Court will not permit the government to take advantage of its own illegal conduct to forfeit a citizen's property, nor to bootstrap itself by the return and prompt reseizure of the property (whose present location it would have no knowledge of but for its own unlawful conduct in the initial seizure). See United States v. One 1976 Cadillac Seville, 477 F. Supp. 879, 882, 884-85 (E.D.Mich. 1979).*fn3

Conclusion

Accordingly White's motion for summary judgment is granted, this action is dismissed with prejudice and the government is directed to return the currency to White forthwith.


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