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United States v. Real Property Located At 265 Falcon Road

July 7, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Phil Gilbert United States District Court Judge


The Court hereby considers the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 11) filed by the United States in this case. The motion seeks summary judgment on a claim filed by Marsha Grasher to real property located at 265 Falcon Road, Carbondale, Illinois, which is subject to forfeiture pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(7). Grasher has responded to the government's motion (Doc. 14), and the government has replied to her response (Doc. 18).

I. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosed materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Spath v. Hayes Wheels Int'l-Ind., Inc., 211 F.3d 392, 396 (7th Cir. 2000). The reviewing court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Chelios v. Heavener, 520 F.3d 678, 685 (7th Cir. 2008); Spath, 211 F.3d at 396. If the moving party is defending the claim at trial, he need not provide evidence affirmatively negating the plaintiff's claim. It is enough that he point to the absence of evidence to support an essential element of the plaintiff's claim for which she carries the burden of proof at trial Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23, 325. Where the defendant has pointed to a lack of evidence for one of the essential elements of a plaintiff's claim, if the plaintiff fails to provide evidence sufficient to establish that element, there is no genuine issue of material fact and the defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23.

II. Facts

Viewing all the evidence and drawing all reasonable inferences in Grasher's favor, the evidence establishes the following facts, for the purposes of this motion.

The property that is the subject of this forfeiture action consists of approximately 23 acres in Williamson County, Illinois, which served as a residence for William A. Patrich, the original owner of the property. The property is worth approximately $144,000.

On September 17, 2008, law enforcement officers, while performing a cannabis detection flight, discovered that the property served not only as Patrich's residence but as the site of a marihuana grow operation. Subsequent investigation indicated that Patrich was actively tending the marihuana patch and harvesting marihuana plants. Based on those activities, law enforcement officers obtained a search warrant on September 24, 2008. During the execution of the warrant on September 25, 2008, a gun fight broke out, and law enforcement officers shot and killed Patrich.

A search of the property revealed approximately 59 mature marihuana plants growing near Patrich's residence and approximately ten pounds of processed marihuana located in a semi-trailer on the property about 30 feet from the house. The inside of the semi-trailer was modified especially for growing, drying, and packaging marihuana.

On October 3, 2008, the United States filed the instant forfeiture complaint against the subject property on the basis that it was used to facilitate a marihuana grow operation in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(7). The United States further filed a lis pendens in Williamson County, Illinois, on October 6, 2008 referencing the forfeiture action. On October 7, 2008, Grasher opened a probate estate in Williamson County, Illinois. Grasher is Patrich's sister and only heir. She claims the property both individually and as the administrator of Patrich's estate. Grasher had no interest in the property prior to Patrich's death, and at the time Patrich died, Grasher did not know Patrich had used the property for illegal drug activity.

III. Analysis

The United States argues that under the "relation-back" doctrine, which is codified in 21 U.S.C. § 881(h), all right, title, and interest in forfeited property vested in the United States upon commission of the act giving rise to the forfeiture and that the relevant act occurred, at the latest, on September 17, 2008, when law enforcement officers observed the marihuana grow operation on the premises. Thus, it argues, the property belonged to the United States at that time by virtue of the illegal drug activities conducted on the property. As a consequence, it was not part of Patrich's estate when he died and Grasher never acquired any ownership interest in the property as his heir. The United States also argues that Grasher is not entitled to rely on either of two "innocent owner" defenses, the first of which protects owners who owned property at the time the illegal conduct occurred on the property, 18 U.S.C. § 983(d)(2), and the second of which protects bona fide purchasers of property after illegal conduct occurred on the property, 18 U.S.C. § 983(d)(3)(A).

Grasher challenges the Court's jurisdiction to hear this dispute in light of the well-established rule that "a federal court has no jurisdiction to probate a will or administer an estate." Markham v. Allen, 326 U.S. 490, 494 (1946). Since the subject property is part of Patrich's estate, Grasher contends the Court has no jurisdiction to dispose of it. The United States counters that since it began its proceedings before Grasher commenced the probate action, it has exclusive jurisdiction over the property in this case.

Grasher also argues that the forfeiture of property to which she is entitled violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of excessive fines. The United States concedes the forfeiture is subject to the Eighth Amendment but argues that it does not constitute an excessive fine.

A. Relevant Statutes

A review of the relevant statutes is helpful to the resolution of this matter. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act provides that certain property related to illegal drug activities is subject to forfeiture:

(a) Subject Property

The following shall be subject to forfeiture to the United States and no property right shall exist in them:

(7) All real property, including any right, title, and interest (including any leasehold interest) in the whole of any lot or tract of land and any appurtenances or improvements, which is used, or intended to be used, in any manner or part, to commit, or to facilitate the commission of, a violation of this subchapter punishable by more than one year's imprisonment.

21 U.S.C. § 881(a). The Act further provides:

(h) Vesting of title in United States

All right, title, and interest in property described in subsection (a) of this section shall vest in the United States upon commission of the act ...

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