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United States v. Hill

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 12, 2014

United States of America,
v.
Melvin Hill, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER (Docs. 222, 225, 233, 249)

WILLIAM K. SESSIONS, III, District Judge.

Melvin Hill, proceeding pro se, moves pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(g) for the return of property seized by federal agents during two criminal arrests, namely: $2, 200.00 in cash seized on February 13, 2012 (Docs. 222 and 233) and "approximately" $1, 100.00 in cash seized on May 7, 2012 (Doc. 225.) In the alternative, Hill moves pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 983(e) to set aside a declaration of forfeiture regarding the currency seized in February 2012 (Doc. 249.) Hill's criminal case has resolved to judgment, and therefore, the Court construes Hill's motions as civil actions in equity. See Diaz v. United States, 517 F.3d 608, 610 (2d Cir. 2008) ("A Rule 41(g) motion that is brought after the criminal proceeding is over is treated as a civil equitable action"). For the reasons set forth below, Hill's motion for the return of seized property ($2200) (Doc. 222 and 233) is DENIED, and the motion for the return of seized property ($1100)(Doc. 225) is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. The Court declines to rule on the motion to set aside a declaration of forfeiture (Doc. 249) at this time.

Factual Background

On February 13, 2012, Detective Daniel Merchand of the Burlington Police Department executed a search warrant of Room 229 at the Anchorage Inn in Burlington, Vermont with the assistance of federal law enforcement officers (Doc. 222 at 1). Hill alleges that law enforcement found him inside, searched his person, and illegally seized approximately $2, 200. Id. at 1-2. Law enforcement expressed their interest in engaging Hill as a confidential informant, returned $200.00 of the seized currency to allow Hill to pay for the hotel room, and released him without immediately filing charges (Doc. 222 at 2, Doc. 247 at 2, and Doc. 249 at 1.)

Through Forfeiture Counsel, Vicki L. Rashid, the Government alleges that on March 12, 2012, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sent written notice of the February 2012 seizure by certified mail to each of three separate addresses: (1) Room 229 of the Anchorage Inn in South Burlington, the room where Hill was arrested; (2) an address in Tignall, Georgia; and (3) an address in Newport News, Virginia (Doc. 247-1 at 3.) The notices sent to the Anchorage Inn and to the Virginia address were returned to DEA undelivered. Id.

On March 14, 2012, DEA received a return receipt indicating that an individual signed to accept delivery of the notice sent to the Georgia address. Id. DEA then published notice of the seizure in the Wall Street Journal one day per week for three successive weeks: March 26, April 2, and April 9, 2012. Id. at 4. Hill alleges he did not receive any written notice of the seizure, and that his father, Melvin Hill, Sr., was the individual who signed for the notice sent to the Georgia address (Doc. 249 at 2.)

On April 19, 2012, this Court issued an arrest warrant for Hill (Doc. 19.) On May 7, 2012, law enforcement arrested Hill at the Quality Inn in South Burlington, Vermont and seized "approximately eleven hundred in cash" found on his person (Doc. 225 at 1 and Doc. 247 at 2.) Hill was detained pending trial (Doc. 46.) After pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine base (21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(B)), he was sentenced to seventy months in prison (Doc. 166.)

Discussion

I. February 2012 Seizure

On August 6, 2013, Hill moved pursuant to Rule 41(g) for the return of the currency seized during the February 2012 arrest ("February 2012 seizure") (Doc. 222.)[1] Hill alleges that the currency was illegally seized, and he did not receive notice of the seizure with sufficient time to challenge forfeiture. Id. at 2. Hill requests the return of $2, 200.00, plus interest, and demands a total sum of $2, 400. Id at 5. However, Hill concedes in response to the Government's opposition that law enforcement returned $200.00 at the time of his arrest (Doc. 249.) Therefore, the Court finds that the amount of currency in question for purposes of Hill's motions regarding the February 2012 seizure is $2, 000.00.

In opposition, the Government argues DEA properly effected an administrative forfeiture of the seized currency in accordance with 18 U.S.C. § 983 and 19 U.S.C. § 1607, and Hill's claim is barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity (Doc. 247 at 3-5.) On January 21, 2014, in conjunction with his response to the Government's opposition, Hill moved to set aside the civil forfeiture of the February 2012 seizure pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 983(e). (Doc. 249.)

a. Sovereign Immunity

The Government argues that Hill's claims regarding the February 2012 seizure are barred by sovereign immunity. After DEA noticed the seizure and Hill failed to file a claim within the statutory period, [2] DEA issued a declaration of forfeiture on May 29, 2012 and re-distributed the funds (Doc. 247-1, Exhibits 2 and 8.) The Government argues that because DEA no longer physically possesses the currency, the doctrine of sovereign immunity bars any claim that would, in effect, seek compensation from the Treasury (Doc. 247 at 3-5.)

The doctrine of sovereign immunity provides "that the United States may be sued without its consent and that the existence of consent is a prerequisite for jurisdiction." United States v. Mitchell, 463 U.S. 206, 212 (1983). "[W]aivers of sovereign immunity must be unequivocally expressed' in statutory text, and cannot simply be implied." Adeleke v. United States, 355 F.3d 144, 150 (2d Cir. 2004) (quoting United States v. Nordic Village, Inc., 503 U.S. 30, 33 (1992)). "A suit for payment of funds from the Treasury is quite different from a suit for the return of tangible property." Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Therefore, "consent to be sued for the latter form of relief does not imply its consent to be sued ...


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