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United States v. Currency $96

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

December 20, 2016

United States of America, Plaintiff,
v.
Currency $96, 770, Defendant, Doru Bobby Moise & Roma Harvest International Ministries, Claimants.

          Stephanie Dawkins Davis United States Magistrate Judge.

          OPINION AND ORDER DENYING CLAIMANTS' MOTION TO TRANSFER VENUE [18] AND DENYING CLAIMANTS' MOTION FOR A PROTECTIVE ORDER [17]

          Hon. Gershwin A. Drain United States District Court Judge.

         I. Introduction

         On April 1, 2016, Plaintiff United States of America (“the Government”) filed a Complaint for Forfeiture, based on currency seized by officers at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Dkt. No. 1, pp. 1-2 (Pg. ID No. 1-2). Thereafter, Claimants Doru Bobby Moise and Roma Harvest International Ministries received four extensions to file claims and answers to the Complaint. See Dkt. No. 4-11.

         On November 16, 2016, Claimants filed a Motion for a Protective Order, Dkt. No. 17, and a Motion to Transfer Case to the United States District Court for the Central District of California, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), Dkt. No. 18.

         These motions are fully briefed and a hearing was held on December 19, 2016. For the reasons discussed herein, the Court will DENY Claimants' Motion to Transfer Venue [18] and DENY Claimants' Motion for a Protective Order [17].

         II. Background

         On November 5, 2015, a United States Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (“Customs”) officer was conducting outbound currency inspections at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Michigan. Dkt. No. 1, p. 24 (Pg. ID No. 4). Afrodita Chiciu and her traveling companion, Ana Rios, were ticketed passengers on Delta Airlines Flight No. 98 traveling to Paris, France with a final destination to Romania. Id. A Customs officer approached Chiciu and Rios for purposes of conducting a currency inspection. Id. The first time that the Customs officer asked Chiciu how much money she was transporting, Chiciu responded that she had $10, 000. Id.

         The Customs officer then referred Chiciu and Rios to secondary inspection to search their persons and baggage more thoroughly. Id. Chiciu then professed a lack of knowledge with the English language. Id. During secondary inspection, Rios provided translation assistance to Chiciu. Id. Customs officers explained the currency reporting requirements to Rios, who acknowledged that she understood the requirements, and then Rios translated the U.S. currency requirements to Chiciu. Id. Chiciu affirmed her understanding of the currency reporting requirements and restated to Customs officers that she was transporting $10, 000. Id. at 4-5.

         Customs officers asked Chiciu to clarify her previous response, and Chiciu stated she had “a little more” than $10, 000. Id. at 5. When Customs officers asked Chiciu to specify the exact amount of currency in her possession, she verbally declared $30, 000. Id. Following the verbal declarations, Customs officers presented Chiciu with Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FINCEN”) Form No. 105. Id. On that form, Chiciu changed her previous declarations and made a written declaration in the amount of $90, 000. Rios declared $500.00 in writing on FINCEN Form No. 105. Id.

         Customs officers then examined the carry-on bags belonging to Rios and Chiciu. Id. Inside Rios's carry-on bag, Customs officers discovered $26, 500, which was not properly reflected on Rios's currency reporting document. Id. Inside Chiciu's carry-on bag, Customs officers discovered $96, 770, which was not properly reflected on Chiciu's reporting document. Id. The Government alleges that once the currency was discovered, Chiciu became very agitated and told Customs officers that she has high blood pressure. Id. Customs then provided Chiciu with an airport wheelchair, which she accepted, although she declined the Customs' offer to seek medical attention on her behalf. Id. Minutes later, Chiciu allegedly abandoned the wheelchair, picked up her belongings, and began talking excitedly to Rios in Romani. Id. at 5-6.

         A Customs supervisory officer notified Delta Airlines personnel that Rios and Chiciu would not be flying on Delta Airlines Flight No. 98 and requested that their checked in luggage be removed from the plane and taken directly to the Federal Inspection Station. Id. at 6. Chiciu and Rios were escorted to the Federal Inspection Station for further investigation. Id. While there, Chiciu and Rios initially denied to Customs officers that Chiciu had given Rios any currency. Id. After further questioning, Chiciu and Rios changed their original explanation and told Customs officers that while they were traveling to the airport, Chiciu gave Rios $10, 200 to carry in her possession. Id.

         Based on the inspection and inconsistent statements made by Chiciu and Rios, Customs officers determined that both passengers were attempting to transport $123, 270 in U.S. Currency from the United States to Romania. Id. Customs officers returned $3, 270.00 to Rios for humanitarian reasons. Officers seized the remaining $120, 000 for failure to accurately report the transportation of currency pursuant to 31 U.S.C. § 5316(a)(1). Id. The Government does not seek forfeiture of the $26, 500 in United States Currency seized from Rios. Id.

         III. Discussion

         A. Claimants' Standing

         The Court must first address the issue that the Government raised in its response briefs. See Dkt. No. 20, pp. 18-21 (Pg. ID No. 287-90). The Government contends that Claimants' factual assertions are unsupported by the record and that “[t]heir tie to the defendant currency remains speculative.” Id. at 21. Thus, according to the Government, because Claimants have not yet demonstrated standing to contest the forfeiture, the issues presented to the Court are not ripe for a decision. See id.

         In order to contest a governmental forfeiture action, claimants must have statutory standing through compliance with Rule C(6) of the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions, as well as the Article III standing required for any action brought in federal court. See United States v. Currency $267, 961.07, 916 F.2d 1104, 1107 (6th Cir. 1990). Rule C(6) provides:

The claimant of property that is the subject of an action in rem shall file a claim within 10 days after process has been executed, or within such additional time as may be allowed by the court, and shall serve an answer within 20 days after the filing of the claim. The claim shall be verified on oath or solemn affirmation, and shall state the interest in the property by virtue of which the claimant demands its restitution and the right to defend the action. If the claim is made on behalf of the person entitled to possession by an agent, bailee, or attorney, it shall state that the agent, bailee, or attorney is duly authorized to make the claim.

Id.

         For Article III standing, “a claimant must have a colorable ownership, possessory or security interest in at least a portion of the defendant property.” United States v. $515, 060.42 in U.S. Currency, 152 F.3d 491, 497 (6th Cir. 1998). “Article III's standing requirement is thereby satisfied because an owner or possessor of property that has been seized necessarily suffers an injury that can be redressed at least in part by the return of the seized property.” Id. To establish standing, claimants need only claim a facially colorable interest in the seized property, not prove the merits of their underlying claim. Id. at 487-98.

         An ownership interest is the most obvious type of interest in seized property that constitutes a colorable claim. Id. at 498. However, “[a] property interest less than ownership may also be sufficient to create standing.” Id. Even possessory interests may be sufficient to bestow standing to contest a forfeiture. Id. Nevertheless, “naked possession” claims are insufficient to establish standing. Id. Instead, claimants must provide some explanation or contextual information regarding their relationship to the seized property. Id. Factual allegations should include how the claimants came to possess the property, the nature of the claimants' relationship to the property, and/or the story behind the claimants' control of the property. Id.

         To contest a forfeiture action, claimants bear the burden of demonstrating an interest in the seized item sufficient to satisfy the Court of their standing as claimants. Id. However, the Sixth Circuit has “decline[d] to adopt any type of hard-and-fast requirement for the initial evidentiary showing necessary for standing.” Id.

         The Government may challenge whether claimants' interest in defendant property is sufficient to confer standing by questioning the claimants' factual allegations and developing information through interrogatories to determine whether the claimants have a real interest in the property. Id. at 499. Article III merely requires that claimants allege a personal stake in the controversy's outcome, such as an actual or threatened injury. Id.

         Here, Claimants have taken the essential step of asserting a property interest in the defendant currency. The question then becomes whether Claimants have provided sufficient proof of their property interests to establish standing so that their motions may be properly considered. The Court ...


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