US v. Damian Phillips & $200,000 (4th Cir., filed 2/21/18): Fourth Circuit Decides Appropriate Test for Third-Party Standing in Civil Forfeiture cases.

Government pockets $200K without even having to swear out a warrant.

Another infuriating civil forfeiture case, here the Government seized $200,000 located in a storage unit even though there were no charges filed, or any investigation conducted.  A police dog alerted on a storage unit.  No drugs were found, but $200,000 was present in 12 vacuum-sealed plastic bags.  The renter of the unit, Byron Phillips had previously been convicted of maintaining a vehicle or dwelling for controlled substances and felony possession of marijuana.

Damian Phillips filed a verified claim stating that the money belonged to him, and not his brother.  Byron also filed a declaration stating that the money belonged to his brother.  The district court denied Damian had standing to challenge the forfeiture.

To establish Article III standing, a party “must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct . . . and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.”  Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540, 1547 (2016).  A claimant seeking to challenge a civil forfeiture must have an ownership or possessory interest in the property, 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.”  United States v. $17,900, 859 F.3d 1085, 1090 (D.C. Cir. 2017).  The “manner and degree of evidence required” to establish standing depends on the “stage[] of the litigation.”  See Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992).  At the pleading stage, a claimant in a civil forfeiture case need only allege a possessory or ownership interest in the property.  See $17,900, 859 F.3d at 1090.

This is the first Fourth Circuit case to address the “manner and degree of evidence required” for a claimant to establish standing at the summary judgment stage in a civil forfeiture action.  Other courts have used the “colorable interest” test which requires a claimant to present “some evidence of ownership” beyond the mere assertion of an ownership interest.  That test now applies here as well.

The Court additionally notes the distinction between civil and criminal forfeiture cases.  In criminal forfeiture cases, a third party must demonstrate “dominion and control” over the forfeited property.  See In re Bryson, 406 F.3d 284, 291 (4th Cir. 2005); United States v. Morgan, 224 F.3d 339, 343 (4th Cir. 2000).

But here, the Court found that Damian did not meet the colorable interest burden, and thus did not have standing.  In its view, Damian alleged facts that showed the money belonged to him, but he did not present any objective evidence corroborating these facts.  Indeed, the evidence he presented showed that he simply could not have saved up $200,000.  During this time frame, for example, Damian had financial troubles during this period, including car repossessions, his wife’s bankruptcy, failure to file tax returns in 2005, and 2010-2013, and delinquency in making rent payments.  In other words, if he had the money, he should have paid it to cover those problems.

So, another win for the Government, filching a cool $200K without even having to swear out a warrant. When will this madness end?