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United States v. $389

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

June 28, 2017

$389, 820.00 IN UNITED STATES CURRENCY,, Defendants.




         This in rem action is before the court on a Motion to Dismiss filed by claimant, Ruby Barton ("Barton"), as Executor of the Estate of Rodriguez Garth, (Doc. #14) and a Motion to Strike filed by the United States (the "Government") (Doc. # 15).

         In her Motion to Dismiss, Barton argues that this court lacks in rem jurisdiction over this case because in rem jurisdiction first attached and remains in state court (Doc. # 14). In response, the Government argues, even if in rem jurisdiction first attached in state court, it voluntarily relinquished jurisdiction when it issued a turnover order of the property to this court (Docs. #17, 18, & 20). Barton replies that a state court may not divest its in rem jurisdiction without a judgment on the merits on that claim (Doc. # 23). Barton has filed a claim in this court, but contends that the state court has jurisdiction.

         In the Government's Motion to Strike, the Government contends that Barton lacks standing to assert a claim, because the deadline for filing her claim and Motion to Dismiss have passed (Doc. # 15). The Government contends that this court has jurisdiction, not the state court. In response, Barton concedes that her filings were untimely; however, she submits that if the court has jurisdiction over this action, the court should exercise its discretion in extending the deadlines for both filings (Doc. # 22).

         For the reasons that follow, both Motions are due to be DENIED.

         II. FACTS

         The Verified Complaint, claims, exhibits to pleadings, and briefs show the following facts:

         On May 13, 2016, the Millbrook Police Department responded to a 911 telephone call stating Rodriguez Lakeith Garth ("Garth") had been shot. Police and medical personnel responded to the call and located Garth at a local Sonic Drive-in restaurant. Officers observed multiple gunshot sized holes through the driver's side window of Garth's Mercedes vehicle. Garth was transported to Baptist South Hospital in Montgomery, Alabama for treatment. Afterwards, officers seized Defendant $4, 550.00 from the vehicle and Garth's person (Doc. # 1).

         An investigation later revealed that Garth had been shot at his residence in Millbrook, Alabama and that he had driven himself to the Sonic Drive-in. This information led officers to obtain a search warrant for Garth's residence. Judge Glenn Goggans of the Elmore County District Court, an Alabama state court, issued the search warrant on May 14, 2016, the day after the shooting (Doc. # 17-1). The warrant authorized officers to search Garth's residence for evidence related to the shooting. Multiple officers, making up a joint task force of state and federal law enforcement officers, were involved in the execution of the warrant, including Officer Talley of the Elmore County Sheriffs Office, members of the DEA Montgomery residence office, and agents from the Central Alabama Drug Task Force.

         Upon entry into Garth's residence, officers noticed the presence of illegal narcotics and assorted firearms. Judge Goggans then issued a second search warrant (Doc. # 17-3), which allowed officers to search Garth's residence and any vehicles on the property and to seize evidence of illegal narcotics, in addition to evidence related to the shooting. During the search of the residence, the garage, and the car in the garage, officers found and seized four "totes" containing 11 "bundles" of marijuana, eight "bundles" of marijuana in a closet, four gallon-size plastic bags of cocaine, a digital scale, a Ruger LCP pistol, a Ruger P35 pistol, 6 cellular telephones, assorted jewelry (of which at least some pieces are Defendants in this action), "AR" 15 magazines, assorted documents, and several large quantities of U.S. currency, including Defendants $15, 780.00 and $389, 820.00. Officers also seized three (3) vehicles from Garth's residence, including the Mercedes driven by Garth on the day of the shooting, the Defendant Chevrolet Chevelle, and a Cadillac DTS (Docs. # 14-1, 17-5).

         Garth died on June 16, 2016, about a month after the shooting. Plaintiff Barton subsequently became Executor of Garth's estate.

         The Defendants were transferred to the DEA's possession and administrative forfeiture proceedings were commenced. On July 27, 2016, Barton, in her capacity as Executor, filed a claim with the DEA asserting ownership of the Defendant currency. A little over two months later, on September 29, 2016, Barton filed another claim with the DEA asserting ownership over the Defendants Chevrolet Chevelle and Miscellaneous Jewelry. These claims with the DEA brought about the end of the federal administrative proceedings in this case (Doc. # 17).

         On December 20, 2016, the United States filed a Verified Complaint in this court, seeking forfeiture of the Defendants in rem (Doc. #1), Warrant of Arrest in Rem was issued on December 21 and returned as executed on December 28 (Doc. #3-7). Barton received notice of the Government's Complaint on December 30, 2016 (Doc. # 9).

         On February 15, 2017, Barton filed a claim for the Defendant property in this court (Doc. #12).

         On March 17, 2017, Barton filed a suit in the state Circuit Court for the 19th Judicial Circuit, Civil Action No. CV-17-900092, seeking return of the Defendant property on the basis that no state forfeiture action had been timely filed by the state and, therefore, the estate of Garth was entitled to the property pursuant to Code of Ala., 1975, § 20-2-93(c). (Doc. # 22-2).

         On March 22, 2017, Barton filed the Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction now before the court and on March 24, 2017, the Government filed its Motion to Strike.

         On April 6, 2017, the District Attorney for the state 19th Judicial Circuit filed an Ex Parte Motion for Turnover Order in the Elmore County District Court, reciting that no state forfeiture action in rem was pending in state court and that it was in the best interest of justice that the Defendant property in this case be turned over for federal forfeiture proceedings, which Judge Goggans, the state court judge who had issued the search warrant, granted by ordering the turnover. (Doc. # 17-6).

         On April 11, 2017, Judge Goggans vacated his April 6th Order on the basis that Barton's state court suit was pending in the state circuit court, not his district court, at the time he entered his order. (Doc. # 24-2).

         Then, on May 2, 2017, the state District Attorney filed a Motion for Turnover Order in the state court case before the Elmore County Circuit Court requesting that court to enter an order to turnover the Defendant property for purposes of this federal forfeiture proceeding, thereby relinquishing any jurisdiction that court might have over the property. (Doc. # 26-1).

         On May 3, 2017, Circuit Judge Sibley G. Reynolds entered an Order to Turn Over Property, granting the State's motion. (Doc. # 26-2).

         The basis for Barton's Motion to Dismiss is that the state court had jurisdiction of the property at the time she filed her suit in the state circuit court and continues to have jurisdiction until that case is disposed of, to the exclusion of jurisdiction by this court. The Government denies that contention and also, by its Motion to Strike the Verified ...

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