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United States v. $50

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Northern Division

June 6, 2014

$50, 000.00 in U.S. CURRENCY, Defendant.


WILLIAM D. QUARLES, Jr., District Judge.

The government seeks forfeiture of $50, 000.00 ("the currency") seized from Joe E. Avetia[1] during a traffic stop. Pending is the government's unopposed motion to dismiss Avetia's pro se verified claim[2] and answer for failure to comply with Rule G(5).[3] No hearing is necessary. Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2011). For the following reasons, the motion will be denied.

I. Background[4]

In March 2013, Trainor was told by law enforcement officers that Avetia[5] transported marijuana between Tucson, Arizona and Philadelphia. ECF No. 1 at 6. He was also told that Avetia was in the Philadelphia area to pick up payment for a previous shipment of marijuana and was driving a 2008 Freightliner tractor trailer registered in Arizona. Id. Based on his training and experience, Trainor was aware that drug traffickers often use truck drivers to ship large quantities of marijuana across the United States. Id.

On March 1, 2013, Trainor and other officers began surveillance on Avetia at his hotel in Pennsylvania. Id. at 6-7. On March 3, 2013, they observed a meeting between Avetia and two other males who were driving a pickup truck registered in Pennsylvania. Id. at 7. The officers discovered that the truck was registered to Pierre D. Williams, who has previous arrests and convictions in Pennsylvania for murder, assault, drug, and firearms crimes. Id. During the meeting, the males gave Avetia a paper bag containing a rectangular object. Id.

On March 4, 2013, Avetia left his hotel in his tractor trailer. Id. DEA special agents asked the Maryland State Police to stop Avetia's trailer. Id. Two State Troopers conducted a traffic stop of Avetia for speeding. Id. As a trooper approached the tractor trailer, Avetia left the trailer. Id. at 8. He showed the trooper a hotel receipt - even though his trailer was equipped with beds - and offered to show the officer the contents of the trailer. Id. Avetia also acted very nervous in response to the trooper's questions about his trip. Id. Avetia told the trooper that he was driving to Brownsville, Texas, which the trooper knew is one of the largest entry points for narcotics in the United States. Id.

The troopers found Avetia's behavior suspicious and requested assistance from another officer and his drug detection dog to conduct a canine sniff of Avetia's trailer. See id. The dog positively alerted for the presence of narcotics. Id. Avetia told the troopers that he had $50, 000 in a bag inside the trailer. Id. The currency was packaged in multiple bundles and secured by varying colors of rubber bands. Id. Avetia told the troopers that he had obtained the currency during his travels from buying and selling trailers and parts for tractors, and that he bundled it to make it easier to count. Id. at 8-9.

The troopers seized the currency and transferred it to the DEA. Id. at 9. Trainor brought the currency to the DEA Philadelphia Division, where another dog sniffed it and positively alerted for the presence of drugs. Id.

On September 19, 2013, the government filed a forfeiture complaint, asserting that the currency is subject to forfeiture under 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6), because it "was money furnished and intended to be furnished in exchange for a controlled substance in violation of the Controlled Substances Act [("CSA")][6]." Id. at 4. On October 22, 2013, Avetia, pro se, filed a verified claim for the currency. ECF No. 4. In his claim, Avetia states that he "claims a 100% interest in the $50, 000.00, " which "was derived from a legitimate source and was not the product of any illegal activity." Id. at 1. He also notes that he possessed the currency - of which he is the "innocent owner" - legally. Id. at 2. He states that he "owns his own business and has two trucks and two trailers which he utilizes to transport produce [and] obtains funds from buying and selling truck parts." Id.

On October 22, 2013, Avetia answered the complaint. ECF No. 5. On October 29, 2013, the government wrote to Avetia to inform him that his claim "does not conform to the requirements" of Rule G(5). ECF No. 6-1 at 1. The government offered to give him a 21-day extension to file a conforming claim. Id. On December 17, 2013, the government moved to dismiss the claim and answer for failure to comply with Rule G(5). ECF No. 6. Avetia did not file an amended claim or respond to the motion to dismiss.[7]

II. Analysis

A. Standing

The government contends that Avetia lacks statutory standing to contest the forfeiture because his claim and answer do not comply with the pleading requirements of Rule G(5). ECF No. 6 at 3-4. Civil forfeiture claimants bear the burden of establishing Article III and statutory standing. See United States v. $7, 000.00 in U.S. Currency, 583 F.Supp.2d 725, 729 (M.D. N.C. 2008); United States v. $487, 825.00 in U.S. Currency, 484 F.3d 662, 664 (3d Cir. 2007).

To establish Article III standing, the "claimant must have a colorable ownership, possessory or security interest in at least a portion of the defendant property." United States v. Munson, 477 F.Appx. 57, 62 (4th Cir. 2012) cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 315 , 184 L.Ed.2d 187 (2012).[8] Statutory standing requires the claimant's compliance with Rule G(5) of the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions and 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(4)(A). See United States v. $119, 030.00 in U.S. Currency, 955 F.Supp.2d 569, 577 (W.D. Va. 2013); United States v. $12, 126.00 in U.S. ...

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