United States of America v. $389,820.00 in United States Currency et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER directing as follows: (1) the Government's 90 MOTION for Summary Judgment is GRANTED; (2) the Claimant's 95 MOTION for Summary Judgment is DENIED; (3) Judgment is entered in favor of the Government . As such, the Defendants $4,550.00, $15,780.00, $389,820.00, 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle, and Miscellaneous Jewelry are FORFEITED to the United States; and (4) the Government's 76 MOTION for Interlocutory Sale of Defendant Miscellaneous Jewelry and 78 MOTION for Interlocutory Sale of Defendant 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle are DENIED as moot. Signed by Chief Judge Emily C. Marks on 10/4/19. (Attachments: # 1 civil appeals checklist)(djy, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
$389,820.00 IN UNITED STATES
CURRENCY, et al.,
Civ. Act. No.: 2:16-cv-985-ECM
MEMORANDUM OPINION and ORDER
This is an action for civil forfeiture of the Defendant property brought by the United
States of America pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6). 1 Now pending before the Court are
the Government’s motion for summary judgment filed on June 12, 2019, (doc. 90), and
Claimant Ruby Barton’s motion for summary judgment filed June 13, 2019 (doc. 95). The
Government filed a response in opposition to the Claimant’s motion for summary judgment
on July 8, 2019. (Doc. 97). For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that the
Government’s motion for summary judgment is due to be GRANTED and the Claimant’s
motion for summary judgment is due to be DENIED.
21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6) provides for the forfeiture of “[a]ll moneys, negotiable instruments, securities, or
other things of value furnished or intended to be furnished by any person in exchange for a controlled
substance or listed chemical in violation of this subchapter, all proceeds traceable to such an exchange, and
all moneys, negotiable instruments, and securities used or intended to be used to facilitate any violation of
JURISDICTION AND VENUE
The Court exercises jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1345 and § 1355. Venue
is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1395 and 21 U.S.C. § 881(j).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A. Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment should be granted only if “there is no issue as to any material
fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P.
56(c). The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine dispute
as to any material fact by identifying those portions of “‘the pleadings, depositions, answers
to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,’ which it
believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Clark v. Coats &
Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). The movant may carry this burden “by
demonstrating that the nonmoving party has failed to present sufficient evidence to support
an essential element of the case.” Hornsby-Culpepper v. Ware, 906 F.3d 1302, 1311 (11th
Cir. 2018) (citing Celotex Corp v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322–23 (1986)).
The burden then shifts to the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and
designate “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S.
at 324. To avoid summary judgment, the nonmoving party “must do more than simply
show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec.
Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).
“[A] court generally must view all evidence and make all reasonable inferences in
favor of the party opposing summary judgment.” Fla. Int’l Univ. Bd. of Trs. v. Fla. Nat’l
Univ., Inc., 830 F.3d 1242, 1252 (11th Cir. 2016). However, “conclusory allegations
without specific supporting facts have no probative value.” Jefferson v. Sewon Am., Inc.,
891 F.3d 911, 924–25 (11th Cir. 2018). If the record, taken as a whole, “could not lead a
rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party,” then there is no genuine dispute as
to any material fact and the court must grant summary judgment. Hornsby-Culpepper, 906
F.3d at 1311 (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd., 475 U.S. at 587).
B. Summary Judgment in Civil Forfeiture Cases
This forfeiture proceeding is governed by the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act
1. The Government’s Burden
Under CAFRA, the United States must prove “by a preponderance of the evidence
that the property is subject to forfeiture,” that is, that there is a “substantial connection
between” the property and illegal drug activity. 18 U.S.C. § 983(c)(1) and (3). Whether
the government has shown probable cause for forfeiture is a question of law. See United
States v. Four Parcels of Real Property, 941 F.2d 1428, 1439 n.22 (11th Cir. 1991).
Probable cause in this context is a reasonable ground for belief: something more than mere
suspicion but less than prima facie proof. United States v. Cleckler, 270 F.3d 1331, 1334
(11th Cir. 2001) (citing United States v. $121,100.00 in United States Currency, 999 F.2d
1503, 1506 (11th Cir. 1993)).
Courts have been cautioned in civil forfeiture proceedings “not to dissect strands of
evidence as discrete and disconnected occurrences.” United States v. $22,991.00, More or
Less, in United States Currency, 227 F. Supp. 2d 1220, 1235-36 (S.D. Ala. 2002). The
Court must instead evaluate the evidence, applying a common-sense view of the realities
of normal life in the totality of the circumstances. See United States v. Carrell, 252 F.3d
1193, 1201 (11th Cir. 2001).
Pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6), the government is not required to demonstrate
that the seized currency was connected with any particular drug transaction; instead, the
government need only show that the money was “related to some illegal drug transaction.”
United States v. $242,484.00, 389 F.3d 1149, 1160 (11th Cir. 2004) (en banc). The
Government may use evidence gathered after the filing of a complaint for forfeiture to meet
its burden. 18 U.S.C. § 983(c)(2).
2. The Claimant’s Burden
Once the Government has met its burden, the burden shifts to the Claimant to prove
by a preponderance of evidence either a defense to the forfeiture or to prove that the
property is not otherwise subject to forfeiture. 18 U.S.C. § 983(d)(1); United States v.
$52,000.00, More or Less, in United States Currency, 508 F. Supp. 2d 1036, 1040 (S.D.
Ala. 2007) (citing United States v. $21,000.00 in United States Postal Money Orders, 298
F. Supp. 2d 597, 601 (E.D. Mich. 2003)). “The claimant may meet this burden either by
rebutting the government's evidence or by showing that the claimant is an innocent
owner.” 2 Cleckler, 270 F.3d at 1334. If the Government carries its burden, and the
Claimant fails to meet her burden, the property will be forfeited. See Id.
“With respect to a property interest in existence at the time the illegal conduct giving rise to forfeiture
took place, the term “innocent owner” means an owner who (i) did not know of the conduct giving rise to
forfeiture; or (ii) upon learning of the conduct giving rise to the forfeiture, did all that reasonably could be
expected under the circumstances to terminate such use of the property.” 18 U.S.C. § 983 (d)(2)(A)(i-ii).
A. The May 13 and 14, 2016 Shooting Investigation
The facts of this case are largely undisputed. On May 13, 2016, at 10:48 p.m.,
Millbrook Police were dispatched to the Sonic Drive-In at 77 Dudley Drive in Millbrook,
Alabama. Officers approached a Mercedes vehicle and observed two gunshot holes in the
driver’s side window. Inside the vehicle, officers found Rodriguez Lakeith Garth, who was
shot twice in the torso, but was still conscious. Garth told police that he was shot while he
was sitting in his vehicle near the Liberty Mart Convenience Center at 154 Deatsville
Highway in Millbrook. While attending to Garth, officers found a large sum of U.S.
currency in his pocket and inside the Mercedes. Law enforcement seized the money
(Defendant $4,550), as well as the jewelry on Garth’s person (Defendant Miscellaneous
Jewelry). Garth was then transported to Baptist Hospital South in Montgomery, Alabama
for treatment, where he later died as a result of his injuries.
A subsequent investigation determined that Garth resided at 94 Breckinridge Court
in Deatsville, Alabama. Investigators from Elmore County Sherriff’s Office arrived at 94
Breckinridge Court and spoke with a neighbor who reported hearing two gunshots at
Garth’s residence. The investigators found one spent shell casing in the driveway outside
the garage at 94 Breckinridge Court and discovered tire tracks, which originated in the
Garth’s driveway and crossed the neighbor’s lawn, leaving ruts through the grass. Based
on the condition of the neighbor’s yard, it appeared the vehicle that left the tracks was
moving quickly. Investigators believed this evidence indicated that Garth had been shot at
94 Breckenridge Court and then traveled to the Sonic Drive-In before calling 911.
The next morning, on May 14, 2016, an investigator with Elmore County Sherriff’s
Office obtained a search warrant, signed by an Elmore County District Judge, to search 94
Breckenridge Court for firearms, ammunition, spent ammunition casings, and any other
evidence related to the discharge of a firearm or a physical altercation in connection with
the shooting of Rodriguez Garth. During an initial sweep of the residence, officers observed
several large bundles of what appeared to be marijuana inside a guest bedroom closet. The
officers then sought and obtained a second, more extensive search warrant authorizing
them to search 94 Breckenridge Court, and any vehicles on the property, for firearms,
ammunition, illegal narcotics, drug packaging materials, currency, ledgers, notes,
computers, cellular telephones, mediums used for storing electronic data, measuring scales,
and any stolen property.
B. The Search of 94 Breckinridge Court
Pursuant to the second search warrant, members of the DEA Montgomery
Residence Office, along with agents from the Central Alabama Drug Task Force, searched
the residence at 94 Breckinridge Court. Officers found and seized eight bundles of
marijuana in the closet of the guest bedroom, four totes containing eleven bundles of
marijuana weighing 441 pounds, four gallon-sized plastic bags weighing 1.62 kilograms
containing what appeared to be cocaine, another bag of suspected cocaine weighing 42.7
grams, a digital scale, two firearms, ammunition, six cellular telephones, assorted jewelry,
a large quantity of U.S. currency inside the residence (Defendant $15,780.00) and a large
quantity of U.S. currency (Defendant $389,820.00) in the trunk of a 1972 Chevrolet
Chevelle located in the garage of the residence, much of which was banded with rubber
bands and packaged in vacuum sealed bags. Agents also seized the Mercedes Garth was
driving when he was shot, the Chevrolet Chevelle located in the garage of Garth’s
residence, and a Cadillac DTS, also discovered at the residence 3. There was no one present
at 94 Breckinridge Court during the search and Garth was the only known resident at this
C. The Forfeiture Action
The United States filed a Verified Complaint for Forfeiture In Rem (doc. 1) of
Defendants $389,820.00 in United States Currency, $15,780.00 in United States Currency,
$4,550.00 in United States Currency, Defendant 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle, SS 396, and
Defendant Miscellaneous Jewelry pursuant to 21 U.S.C., § 881(a)(6), alleging the
Defendant properties constituted assets obtained either directly or indirectly from drug
trafficking or represents the proceeds of drug trafficking.
Ms. Ruby Barton, the personal representative and executor of the estate of
Rodriguez Garth, filed a verified claim on behalf of Garth’s estate on February 15, 2017,
(doc. 12), alleging that Garth’s estate is the lawful owner of all Defendant properties and
that the properties were seized as the result of an unlawful search and were therefore not
subject to forfeiture.
Although agents seized all three vehicles, Defendant Chevrolet Chevelle is the only vehicle listed in the
Government’s Verified Complaint. (Doc. 1).
A. The Government’s Motion for Summary Judgment
To determine whether summary judgment is proper in this matter, this Court must
first decide whether the Government has proved by a preponderance of the evidence that
the Defendant property is subject to forfeiture as a matter of law. The Government makes
several arguments, which the Court will address in turn.
1. Large Amounts of Cash in Close Proximity to Controlled Substances
The Government first argues that the large amounts of cash found on Garth’s person,
in Garth’s residence, and in the trunk of the Chevrolet Chevelle parked in the garage
attached to Garth’s home are probative of illegal drug activity because the currency was
found in close proximity to controlled substances. The Eleventh Circuit has stated that
while a large quantity of cash alone is insufficient to “demonstrate a connection to illegal
drugs, the quantity of cash seized [may be] highly probative of a connection to some illegal
activity.” $121,100.00 in U.S. Currency, 999 F.2d at 1507. The probative value of the
currency is even stronger when it is found in close proximity to drugs and drug
paraphernalia. See United States v. $74,000.000 in United States Currency, 2008 WL
1805432, at *4 (M.D. Ala. 2008) (citing United States v. $29, 959.00 in United States
Currency, 931 F.2d 549, 553 (9th Cir. 1991)).
Further, in a civil forfeiture action, the physical location of the seized currency in
relation to illegal narcotics is “strong circumstantial evidence” that the currency is
connected to illegal drug trafficking. $22,991.00 in United States Currency, 227 F. Supp.
at 1233. More specifically, the precise location of a large quantity of currency can create
a link between the currency and illegal activity. In United States v. $22,991.00 in United
States Currency, the court found that $22,991.00 was an “unusually large amount of cash
to be transported in the trunk of an automobile” and found that storing the seized currency
in the trunk of a car was “highly probative . . . circumstantial evidence of a link between
this exorbitant amount of cash and illegal drug activity.” Id. at 1232.
In this case, each of the Defendant currencies, Defendant Miscellaneous Jewelry,
and Defendant Chevrolet Chevelle was found in close proximity to drugs or drug
Investigating officers found Defendant $4,550.00 and Defendant
Miscellaneous Jewelry on Garth’s person when they responded to his 911 call reporting
that he had been shot. During the investigation of the shooting, officers concluded that
Garth had been shot while in the driveway of his residence and then sped away from the
house, as evidenced by tire tracks tearing from Garth’s driveway through the neighbor’s
lawn, before calling police from the parking lot of the Sonic Drive-In in Millbrook,
Alabama. Thus, Defendant $4,550.00 and Defendant Miscellaneous Jewelry were found
on Garth’s person shortly after he fled from his home, where illegal drugs and drug
paraphernalia were later discovered.
During the subsequent search of Garth’s home, 4 Defendant $15,780.00 was found
inside Garth’s residence alongside 441 pounds of marijuana, 1.6 kilograms of cocaine,
digital scales, firearms, and multiple cellular telephones. Defendant $389,820.00, much of
On April 12, 2019, the Claimant filed a motion to suppress (doc. 75), alleging that the initial search warrant
was not supported by probable cause and, as a result, the drugs and U.S. currency found in Garth’s home
were fruit of the poisonous tree. The Court found the initial search warrant was supported by substantial
evidence and that suppression of the seized items was not warranted. (Doc. 85).
which was banded with rubber bands and packaged in vacuum sealed bags, was found
inside the trunk of Defendant Chevrolet Chevelle, which was parked in the garage attached
to Garth’s residence where illegal narcotics were discovered.
As previous courts have found, storing large quantities of currency inside one’s
home or in the trunk of a car rather than using more secure methods, such as a bank account,
is very unusual. The large amount of cash, stored in an unusual manner, and found in
proximity to the illegal narcotics discovered in Garth’s home is highly probative
circumstantial evidence of a link between Defendants $4,550.00, $15,780.00, $389,820.00,
Miscellaneous Jewelry, Chevrolet Chevelle and illegal narcotics activity.
2. No Evidence of Innocent Ownership
The Government next argues that Garth’s estate has failed to provide any evidence
of legitimate income sufficient to explain why he had such large amounts of cash, several
vehicles, and expensive gold and diamond jewelry. In order to prove innocent ownership,
the claimant must do “more than show the existence of possible legitimate sources of cash.”
United States v. $41,305.00 in United States Currency & Traveler’s Checks, 802 F.3d
1339, 1345 (11th Cir. 1991). Garth’s estate must instead establish his financial transactions
and prove that the Defendant properties were the result of an innocent source of ownership
unrelated to any drug trafficking. United States v. $130,052.00 in United States Currency,
909 F. Supp. 1506, 1517–18 (M.D. Ala. 1995).
In this case, the Claimant does not even attempt to assert a legitimate source of the
Defendant currencies and property. Instead, as discussed infra, the Claimant merely states
that Garth is dead and cannot divulge the source or origin of the money. The Government
and Claimant have engaged in discovery in this matter and, despite requests from the
Government, the Claimant has not revealed any legitimate source to explain Garth’s wealth
of over $400,000.00 in cash, gold and diamond jewelry, and multiple automobiles. As a
result, Garth’s lack of evidence of innocent ownership is another factor weighing in favor
3. Garth’s Criminal History
A claimant’s prior narcotics history is probative evidence to be considered in
forfeiture actions. A claimant’s lack of legitimate income combined with a “narcotics
related criminal history” weighs in favor of satisfaction of the Government’s burden.
United States v. $52,000.00, More or Less, In United States Currency, 508 F. Supp. 2d
1036, 1041-43 (S.D. Ala. 2007). Prior convictions of offenses involving controlled
substances are relevant to the question of whether the currency was substantially connected
to illegal drug activity. United States v. Currency, $21,175.00, in United States, 521 F.
App’x 734, 737 (11th Cir. 2013); see also $121,100.00 in United States Currency, 999 F.2d
at 1507 (finding that a claimant’s history of narcotics arrests and convictions was a critical
factor weighing in favor of forfeiture).
Here, it is undisputed that Garth had been convicted of trafficking cocaine in
Montgomery County, Alabama in 2006. Garth was also charged in two drug-related felony
cases in Chambers County, Alabama just a few weeks prior to his death in 2016. These
offenses, combined with Garth’s failure to prove a source of legitimate income, are yet
another factor in favor of finding that forfeiture is proper in this matter.
In determining whether the Government has carried its burden, this Court cannot
weigh each of these factors individually as disconnected strands of evidence. Instead, the
Court must evaluate the evidence by applying a “common-sense view of the realities of
normal life in the totality of the circumstances.” Carrell, 252 F.3d at 1201. Given that the
Defendant currencies, vehicle, and jewelry were found in close proximity to illegal
narcotics, the unusually large quantities of currency were stored in Garth’s home and the
trunk of a vehicle rather than in a bank account, and Garth’s known criminal history
involving drugs and drug trafficking, the Court finds that there is a substantial connection
between the Defendant properties and illegal drug activity. As such, the Court finds that
the Government has met its burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the
seized property is subject to forfeiture.
The burden now shifts to the Claimant to prove either a defense to the forfeiture or
to prove that the property is not otherwise subject to forfeiture.
B. The Claimant’s Motion for Summary Judgment
The Claimant argues that the Government has failed to establish by a preponderance
of the evidence that the Defendant currencies and property are subject to forfeiture because
the facts do not prove the use of the funds and property in violation of the controlled
substances laws of the United States. 5 To support her claims, Claimant recites various
In her motion for summary judgment, the Claimant again challenges this Court’s jurisdiction, in rem, as
to the subject Defendant properties. The Claimant has previously litigated this issue in this very case. The
Court found federal jurisdiction was proper in this matter (doc. 37) and will not revisit this issue.
sections of 21 U.S.C. § 881 and makes arguments alleging a failure to connect the seized
property to a particular drug transaction.
The Claimant does not offer any evidence supporting her allegations. She cites only
to the Complaint in her motion; however, the Complaint is not evidence. Instead, the
Claimant relies on conclusory statements without reference to supporting facts. 6 As the
Eleventh Circuit has held, “conclusory allegations without specific supporting facts have
no probative value.” Jefferson, 891 F.3d at 924–25. As a result, the Court must rely on the
evidence before it, which was proffered by the Government, relating to the proximity of
Garth’s cash in relation to illegal narcotics, Garth’s prior criminal history, and Garth’s
failure to provide a legitimate income source. The Government’s evidence is sufficient to
find a substantial connection between the property seized and illegal drug activity.
Further, the Claimant appears to misapprehend the law with regard to the
Government’s burden. The Government is not required, as Claimant alleges, to prove that
the seized currency was connected to any particular drug transaction.
Government need only show that the money was “related to some illegal drug activity.”
$242,484.00 in U.S. Currency, 389 F.3d at 1160.
The Court is satisfied that the
Government has done so.
Finally, the Claimant argues that Garth’s inability to reveal the source of his large
quantities of cash does not establish that the Defendant currencies are the proceeds of
The Claimant has also failed to comply with this Court’s Uniform Scheduling Order requiring the parties
to file briefs and supporting evidence separately from their motions and to support claims with “specific
references, by page and line, to where evidence can be found” in supporting documents. (Doc. 70 at 2.).
The Claimant’s motion uses improper citations, does not include pinpoint cites, and offers no evidence for
this Court to consider in evaluating her arguments against forfeiture.
illegal drug activity. The Claimant relies on precedent outside of this circuit to argue that
the Government may not seize property in an effort to force citizens to provide explanations
for their wealth. U.S. v. $506, 231.00 in U.S. Currency, 125 F.3d 442, 454 (7th Cir. 1997)
(“The government may not require explanations for the existence of large quantities of
money absent its ability to establish a valid narcotics-nexus.”); United States v. One
Residence and Attached Garage of Anthony J. Accardo, 603 F.2d 1231, 1234 (7th Cir.
1979) (“Property of private citizens simply cannot be seized and held in an effort to compel
the possessor to ‘prove lawful possession.’”).
The Claimant alleges that because Garth is dead, he is incapable of revealing the
origin of his wealth; information which she argues should remain private absent cause to
show otherwise. The Claimant provides no evidence supporting this claim and instead
attempts to dispute her burden of proving a legitimate source for Garth’s money and
property. The Claimant fails recognize that once the Government has carried its burden,
the Claimant must provide proof of innocent ownership, or otherwise rebut the
Government’s evidence, to successfully avoid forfeiture. The Government submitted
evidence proving the Claimant was given the opportunity to provide documentation on
behalf of Garth’s estate which could explain how he accumulated such vast quantities of
cash. The Claimant has provided no such documentation, has proffered no rebuttal to the
Government’s evidence, and has therefore not carried her burden.
This Court concludes that the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the
Defendant currencies and other property, including the presence of drugs, combined with
Garth’s criminal history and the Claimant’s failure to prove innocent ownership, provides
the critical nexus to drug trafficking required to establish by a preponderance of the
evidence that the Defendant properties in this matter are subject to forfeiture as a matter of
Accordingly, it is ORDERED as follows:
1. The Government’s motion for summary judgment (doc. 90) is GRANTED;
2. The Claimant’s motion for summary judgment (doc. 95) is DENIED;
3. Judgment is entered in favor of the Government. As such, the Defendants
Miscellaneous Jewelry are FORFEITED to the United States; and
4. The Government’s motion for interlocutory sale of Defendant Miscellaneous
Jewelry, filed April 15, 2019, (doc. 76), and motion for interlocutory sale of
Defendant 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle, filed April 17, 2019, (doc. 78), are
DENIED as moot.
DONE this 4th day of October, 2019.
/s/ Emily C. Marks
EMILY C. MARKS
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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