United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division
WILLIAM H. STEELE, Chief District Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on defendant Anthony Brown's Motion to Set Aside Declaration of Forfeiture (doc. 82). The Motion has been briefed and is now ripe for disposition.
I. Relevant Facts.
This Motion is the culmination of numerous attempts by defendant, Anthony Brown, to recover certain funds held by the Government that Brown insists belong to him. ( See docs. 67, 71, 76, 82.) On November 21, 2012, law enforcement agents conducted a search at 2100 Royal Street, Selma, Alabama, a private residence owned by Brown's mother, Kimberly Renee Brown. During that search, agents seized $22, 155.00 in U.S. currency (the "Currency") from the residence. Such funds were turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") for administrative forfeiture on December 26, 2012 (doc. 86, Att. V, at 6), on the theory that the Currency was derived from illegal drug transactions, thereby rendering it forfeitable pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6).
Under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act ("CAFRA"), in conducting administrative forfeiture of the Currency, the Government was obligated to provide notice by publication, as well as personal written notice to parties that might have an interest in the subject property. With respect to personal written notice, CAFRA provides that "such notice shall be sent in a manner to achieve proper notice as soon as practicable." 18 U.S.C. § 983(a)(1)(A)(i). To comply with this requirement, the DEA mailed separate Notices of Seizure to Brown, his mother and a third person (apparently Brown's sister) at the 2100 Royal Street address in Selma on January 14, 2013. (Doc. 86, Att. A.) Brown's mother signed certified mail return receipts for all three mailings on January 17, 2013. (Doc. 86, Att. B.) By Affidavit, Kimberly Brown confirms that she received such Notices of Seizure, mailed to her home address, including a Notice addressed to Anthony Brown. (Doc. 82, Exh. C, ¶ 1.) According to Kimberly Brown, she never mentioned the Notice of Seizure to her son Anthony until sometime in 2014. ( Id., ¶ 3.) Anthony Brown maintains that he did not reside at the 2100 Royal Street address in January 2013, but instead was living with his girlfriend at an unspecified location. (Doc. 82, at 3.) Brown elaborates that he never knew about the DEA forfeiture proceedings until "just recently." (Id. at 2.)
On their face, the Notices of Seizure identified the Currency as the property seized, as well as the date of DEA adoption and the place of the seizure, and specified the procedure for contesting forfeiture of such property. (Doc. 86, Att. A.) In particular, the Notices indicated that anyone wishing to contest the proposed forfeiture "must file a claim with the Forfeiture Counsel of the DEA by February 18, 2013.... Your failure to do so will result in the termination of your interest in the asset, and may preclude your contesting the forfeiture of the asset in any judicial proceeding...." (Id. ) Neither Brown nor the other two addressees of Notices of Seizure submitted a claim to the DEA within the designated time frame.
There being no claims submitted as to the Currency, and the requisite deadlines having expired, the DEA issued a Declaration of Forfeiture on April 17, 2013. (Doc. 86, Att. D.) That Declaration referenced the Notices of Seizure sent to Brown and two others, confirmed that notice had also been given by publication,  observed that no claims had been filed, and determined that there was sufficient information to support the proposed forfeiture. (Id. ) On that basis, the Declaration of Forfeiture concluded, "it is hereby declared that such property is forfeited to the United States pursuant to 19 U.S.C. Section 1609." (Id. )
Brown did not challenge the validity of the DEA forfeiture, much less seek to set it aside, until filing his Motion to Set Aside Declaration of Forfeiture on May 11, 2015, more than two years after the underlying forfeiture took place. This is so even though Brown was furnished with documents at his arraignment in these criminal proceedings on December 11, 2013, disclosing the DEA's intended administrative forfeiture of the Currency. (Doc. 86, Att. V.) Now, however, Brown requests that the Declaration of Forfeiture be set aside pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 983(e) for insufficient notice.
By its terms, § 983(e) allows a claimant to set aside a declaration of forfeiture if "(A) the Government knew, or reasonably should have known, of the moving party's interest and failed to take reasonable steps to provide such party with notice; and (B) the moving party did not know or have reason to know of the seizure within sufficient time to file a timely claim." 18 U.S.C. § 983(e)(1)(A)-(B). Brown's evidence is that the Government knew of his interest in the Currency and that he never knew or had reason to know of the Currency's seizure in time to file a timely administrative claim with the DEA. Accepting that evidence as true (without deciding its veracity), the Motion to Set Aside Declaration turns on whether the Government "failed to take reasonable steps to provide [Brown] with notice." This question is the decisive issue animating Brown's Motion and the accompanying briefs.
"The notice necessary to satisfy due process requires only that interested persons be given notice reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections." Mesa Valderrama v. United States, 417 F.3d 1189, 1196-97 (11th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). "Reasonable notice, however, requires only that the government attempt to provide actual notice; it does not require that the government demonstrate that it was successful in providing actual notice. " Id. at 1197 (emphasis added); see also United States v. Simon, 2015 WL 1868343, *2 (11th Cir. Apr. 24, 2015) ("Successful actual notice is not required; the government need only prove an attempt to provide actual notice."). "Generally, notice is sufficient if mailed to an address reasonably believed to be that of the intended recipient." United States v. Sewell, 2014 WL 4599803, *4 (M.D. Ala. Sept. 12, 2014) (citations omitted).
The Court readily concludes that the Government provided notice reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise Anthony Brown of the pending DEA forfeiture proceedings and to afford him an opportunity to object. The Government mailed Notice of Seizure via certified mail sent to his mother's house, which was also (i) the location of the subject seizure and (ii) Brown's last known address. On the latter point, the search warrant affidavit confirms that multiple confidential sources identified that location as Brown's residence and that police surveillance linked Brown to that address. (Doc. 86, Att. I, at 2.) Moreover, among the evidence collected during the November 21, 2012 search was the Currency (which Brown says belongs to him), an "assortment of Anthony Brown papers, " and a firearm registered to Brown. (Doc. 86, Att. I, at 5.) Additionally, in purchasing the subject firearm, Brown used the same 2100 Royal Street address. (Doc. 86, Att. II.) And Brown's Alabama driver license that expired in April 2012 listed an address of 2100 Royal Street. (Doc. 86, Att. III.) Each of these data points pointed unambiguously to 2100 Royal Street as the only known location to provide notice of forfeiture to Brown.
On this record, the Court readily concludes that the Government satisfied the requirements of § 983 and due process by providing notice of forfeiture that was reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise Brown of the pendency of the action and to afford him an opportunity to present objections. Having carefully ...