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Ruiz v. City of Montgomery

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

July 24, 2015

Fernando Ruiz
v.
City of Montgomery

Appeal from Montgomery Circuit Court (CV-14-900556)

ON APPLICATION FOR REHEARING

THOMPSON, Presiding Judge

The opinion of May 29, 2015, is withdrawn, and the following is substituted therefor.

Fernando Ruiz appeals from a summary judgment of the Montgomery Circuit Court ("the trial court") entered in favor of the City of Montgomery ("the City") . The facts of this case are undisputed; however, the parties dispute the proper application of Alabama law to those facts. Because the procedural time line of the case is crucial to the parties' arguments, we briefly set forth the pertinent facts in conjunction with the procedural time line of the case.

On March 13, 2014, Montgomery Police Department ("MPD") officers seized $382, 289 in United States currency ("the currency") from Ruiz's vehicle pursuant to a traffic stop and the subsequent arrest of Ruiz. MPD officers used the currency to purchase a cashier's check and delivered the check into the custody of United States marshals on March 20, 2014. On or around April 15, 2014, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") commenced administrative federal forfeiture proceedings against the currency. Ruiz received notice of the federal forfeiture proceedings and instructions for contesting the proceedings. Those instructions indicated that Ruiz could petition the DEA for return of the currency or could contest the seizure and forfeiture of the currency in federal court, specifically the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.

On March 30, 2014, 10 days after federal agents received the cashier's check but approximately 16 days before the commencement of the federal forfeiture proceedings, Ruiz filed in the trial court a "complaint and motion" against the City seeking the return of the currency. The City filed a motion to dismiss Ruiz's complaint on the ground that Ruiz did not have standing to file the complaint and that, because Ruiz lacked standing, the trial court had not acquired subject-matter jurisdiction."'[1]

On May 22, 2014, Ruiz filed in the trial court a response to the City's motion to dismiss and a motion for a summary judgment. In his summary-judgment motion, Ruiz claimed that no forfeiture proceedings had been commenced against the currency in either federal court or state court. Ruiz argued that Alabama law requires forfeiture proceedings to be instituted promptly and that, because approximately 10 weeks had passed since the currency had been seized, he was entitled to the return of the currency. The City filed a response to Ruiz's motion and reiterated its claim that Ruiz lacked standing to seek the return of the currency and that, as a result, the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction.

On July 31, 2014, the federal forfeiture proceedings were completed, and the City received 80% of the currency pursuant to "equitable sharing" of the seized currency. See Payne v. City of Decatur, 141 So.3d 500, 502 n. 1 (Ala. Civ. App. 2013) .

On August 18, 2014, the City filed a motion for a summary judgment in the action pending in the trial court, in which it again argued that Ruiz lacked standing to seek the return of the currency and that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction. The trial court heard arguments of counsel on August 25, 2014, and on August 28, 2014, it entered a summary judgment in favor of the City. Ruiz filed a postjudgment motion, which the trial court denied. Ruiz timely appealed. Our supreme court transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to § 12-2-7(6), Ala. Code 1975.

Before considering whether the summary judgment was proper, we must determine whether federal or state jurisdiction over the currency attached first, an issue the parties argue extensively in their respective briefs to this court and one that may be dispositive of this appeal. Because concurrent in rem jurisdiction is not allowed. Green v. City of Montgomery, 55 So.3d 256, 264 (Ala. Civ. App. 2009), the determination of whether federal or state jurisdiction attached first is crucial, for if federal jurisdiction attached first, then the trial court's summary judgment was entered without subject-matter jurisdiction and, therefore, would be void.

Ruiz argues that state jurisdiction over the currency attached when MPD officers, pursuant to § 20-2-93, Ala. Code 1975, [2] seized the currency on March 13, 2014. Because, Ruiz argues, state jurisdiction attached, on that date, the trial court had exclusive jurisdiction over the currency and, as a result, the federal forfeiture proceedings, which commenced approximately one month later, were conducted without jurisdiction and, therefore, were invalid. On the other hand, the City argues that state jurisdiction did not attach until Ruiz filed his complaint in the trial court on March 30, 2014, and that, by that time, federal jurisdiction had already attached by virtue of the federal government's possession of the currency.

In support of his argument that state jurisdiction attached when MPD officers seized the currency, Ruiz cites Garrett v. State, 739 So.2d 49 (Ala. Civ. App. 1999), and City of Gadsden v. Jordan, 760 So.2d 873 (Ala. Civ. App. 1998), for the proposition that in rem jurisdiction attaches in a state court at the moment state officials seize property pursuant to § 20-2-93 and that no filing is required. In rebuttal, the City argues that Green, supra, provides that a state court does not acquire in rem jurisdiction until state officials have seized the property and an in rem action has been filed in a state court.

Despite Ruiz's arguments that Garrett and City of Gadsden hold that state jurisdiction attaches when the res is seized pursuant to § 20-2-93, those cases did not involve the issue of competing federal and state in rem jurisdiction. Furthermore, in both of those cases, in rem proceedings were filed in the respective state courts. Thus, as the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama noted in United States v. $96, 370 in United States Currency (Civil Action No. 3: 14-CV-356-WHA, Nov. 12, 2014) (M.D. Ala. 2014) (not published in F.Supp. 3d), "[t]here is no indication in either City of Gadsden or Garrett that seizure itself is sufficient for state jurisdiction to attach. In both cases there was no issue of whether federal jurisdiction existed, and in both cases there were valid filings in state court."

The applicable case affecting the disposition of this appeal is Green, supra, which did involve an issue of competing federal and state in rem jurisdiction. In Green, MPD officers seized, pursuant to a traffic stop, approximately $30, 000 in United States currency from a vehicle occupied by Green and two other individuals ("the claimants"). Pursuant to the doctrine of "adoptive seizure, " the City sought to transfer the currency to the federal government for federal forfeiture proceedings. While the federal government was reviewing the City's request, the claimants filed in state court a complaint seeking the return of their property. Later, the DEA adopted ...


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