United States of America v. One Red 2003 Hummer H2 Vin: 5GRGN23U93H118675
DECISION AND ORDER GRANTING in part and DENYING in part the Government's 22 Motion for Summary Judgment, or in the alternative, to Dismiss; GRANTING the the request for summary judgment; DENYING the request to dismiss; DIRECTING the Clerk of the Court to enter judgment in favor of the United States; DIRECTING the Clerk of Court to CLOSE this case.Signed by William M. Skretny, United States District Judge on 12/30/2016. (MEAL) - CLERK TO FOLLOW UP -
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
DECISION AND ORDER
ONE RED 2003 HUMMER H2
In this action, the government seeks forfeiture of a red 2003 Hummer H2 (the
“Vehicle”) under 21 U.S.C. §§ 881(a)(4) and (a)(6). Claimant Ivory Payne (“Payne”)
contests the forfeiture and seeks return of the Vehicle, which is titled to him. Presently
before this Court is the government’s motion for summary judgment or, in the
alternative, to dismiss Payne’s claim for lack of standing. For the following reasons, the
government’s motion to dismiss is denied, but its motion for summary judgment is
On May 9, 2013, officers from the Niagara Falls Police Department stopped the
Vehicle for failure to stop at a stop sign. (Plaintiff’s Rule 56 Statement of Undisputed
Facts (“Plaintiff’s Statement”), Docket No. 22-1, ¶ 1). Shateek Payne (Payne’s son) was
driving; Joachim Sylvester and Michael Payne were passengers. (Plaintiff’s Statement,
¶ 1). After seeing him reach for his waistband, officers directed Shateek Payne to exit
the Vehicle. (Plaintiff’s Statement, ¶ 2). Shateek Payne then consented to a search of
the Vehicle and advised officers that there were no weapons or illegal items on board.
(Plaintiff’s Statement, ¶ 2).
During the search, officers noticed the strong smell of marijuana emanating from
the rear area of the vehicle and observed an open black garbage bag containing 15
bags of marijuana, totaling 7.5 pounds. (Plaintiff’s Statement, ¶ 2). Officers arrested
Shateek Payne and charged him with criminal possession of marijuana and traffic
violations. (Plaintiff’s Statement, ¶ 3). They also charged the passengers with criminal
violations 1 and they seized the Vehicle. (Plaintiff’s Statement, ¶¶ 3, 5).
Payne testified in his deposition that he purchased the Vehicle in 2012 for $2,000
from a woman named “Tomasina.” (Deposition of Ivory Payne (“Payne Dep.”), Docket
No. 22, Exhibit 2, p. 11.) He purchased the Vehicle in cash from his own funds earned
through his employment at the Board of Elections and his pension from the New York
State Juvenile Correction System, where he worked for 30 years. (Payne Dep., pp. 10,
Payne stated that he was unaware that the National Automobile Dealers
Association guidelines for a 2003 Hummer H2 listed a rough trade-in value of $9,300
and a clean trade-in value of $15,800. 2 (Payne Dep., pp. 21, 22).
In 2013, Payne owned three vehicles and drove the Vehicle 75% of the time.
(Payne Dep., p. 22). He also allowed three of his children, including Shateek Payne, to
drive the Vehicle. (Payne Dep., pp. 14, 17, 22, 57.) None of the children had keys to
the Vehicle; they had to ask Payne for the keys and for permission to use the Vehicle.
Officers searched Joachim Sylvester and found him to be in possession of 27 Opana 30 mg pills
not in their original container, along with $1,200 in counterfeit currency. Officers charged Sylvester with
criminal possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, criminal possession of marijuana, and
criminal possession of a controlled substance. Officers charged Michael Payne with criminal possession
of marijuana. (Plaintiff’s Statement, ¶ 3).
These values appear to be as of September 25, 2014. (See NADA Price Report, Docket No.
22, Exhibit 3, p. 2).
(Payne Dep., pp. 18, 45, 46.)
Payne paid for gas for the Vehicle and for all
maintenance. (Payne Dep., pp. 18-19.) Payne also held insurance on the Vehicle in
his own name; Shateek Payne was not a listed driver. (Payne Dep., p. 14.) When the
Vehicle was seized, it contained many items, most of which belonged to Payne’s sons--Shateek and Andre. (Payne Dep., pp. 24, 59.) It also contained Payne’s eyeglasses
and phone charger. (Payne Dep., p. 24.)
On or about July 2, 2013, Payne submitted a claim to the Drug Enforcement
Administration (“DEA”) to halt administrative forfeiture proceedings against the Vehicle
in favor of judicial forfeiture proceedings. (Plaintiff’s Statement, ¶ 5). On October 1,
2013, the government commenced this in rem action by verified complaint seeking
forfeiture of the Vehicle under 21 U.S.C. §§ 881(a)(4) and (a)(6). (Plaintiff’s Statement,
¶ 13; Docket No. 1). On November 1, 2013, Payne filed a claim and answer to the
complaint contesting forfeiture of the Vehicle. (Plaintiff’s Statement, ¶ 14; Docket Nos.
On March 27, 2015, the government filed the instant motion for summary
judgment or, in the alternative, to dismiss, arguing that the Vehicle is forfeitable under
21 U.S.C. §§ 881(a)(4) and (a)(6) because (1) it was used, or intended for use, to
transport, or in any manner to facilitate the transportation, sale, receipt, possession, or
concealment of a controlled substance; and/or (2) it is proceeds traceable to such
exchanges in violation of Title 21, U.S.C., Subchapter I of Chapter 13, Section 801 et
seq.; and (3) Payne is not an innocent owner. The government alternatively moves to
dismiss and strike Payne’s claim and answer for lack of standing.
To contest a forfeiture action, a claimant must have proper standing. United
States v. One 2000 Mercedes Benz Bearing VIN WDBLJ70G0YF127256, No. 09-CV6543, 2010 WL 4452096, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. 2010). Standing is a threshold issue: if a
claimant lacks standing, the court lacks jurisdiction to consider his challenge to the
United States v. Vehicle: One 1990 Nissan Pathfinder, VIN: JN8HD
17YOLW213075, No. 92-CV-1336, 1994 WL 476704, at *3 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 2, 1994)
(citing Mercado v. United States Customs Serv, 873 F.2d 641, 644 (2d Cir. 1989) and
United States v. One 1982 Porsche 928, 732 F. Supp. 447, 451 (S.D.N.Y. 1990)). The
claimant bears the burden of establishing standing. Mercado, 873 F.2d at 644; One
1982 Porsche 928, 732 F. Supp. at 451.
For proper standing, a claimant must first demonstrate a “possessory or
ownership interest in the subject property.” One 1982 Porsche 928, 732 F. Supp. at
451. Possession requires a custodial interest as well as “domination or supremacy of
authority over the property in question.” Mercado, 873 F.2d at 644. “While ownership
may be proven by actual possession, dominion, control, title and financial stake, ‘[t]he
possession of bare legal title to the res may be insufficient,’ absent other evidence of
control or dominion over the property.” One 1982 Porsche 928, 732 F. Supp. at 451
(quoting United States v. One 1945 Douglas C-54 (DC-4) Aircraft, Serial No. 22186, 604
F.2d 27, 28-29 (8th Cir. 1979)).
Accordingly, “[a] certificate of title and motor vehicle registration are not
dispositive within the context of forfeiture challenges.” United States v. Vehicle: One
1990 Nissan Pathfinder, VIN: JN8HD 17YOLW213075, No. 92-CV-1336, 1994 WL
476704, at *3-*4 (N.D.N.Y. Sept. 2, 1994) (citing United States v. One 1974 Jensen
Interceptor, Vin #23109665, No. 82 CIV. 7215-CSH, 1985 WL 3814, at *3 (S.D.N.Y.
Nov. 19, 1985)). Rather, the issue of ownership “turns primarily upon the identity of the
individual exercising dominion and control over the vehicle, he (or she) being regarded
as its true owner.” One 1974 Jensen Interceptor, Vin #23109665, 1985 WL 3814, at *3.
Thus, in determining standing in civil forfeiture cases, the court must look beyond bare
legal title and examine whether the record owner is the true owner, or merely a
“strawman” set up to avoid forfeiture.
See One 1990 Nissan Pathfinder, 1994 WL
476704, at *3 (citing One 1982 Porsche 928, 732 F. Supp. at 451).
The government argues that Payne lacks standing because he was simply a
strawman or nominee owner. That is, he held title in his name for Shateek Payne but
had no dominion or control over the Vehicle.
The testimony elicited at Payne’s
deposition, however, belies the notion that he possessed insufficient custody, dominion,
or control over the Vehicle to confer standing: he purchased the Vehicle; he held title to
the Vehicle; he insured the Vehicle; he maintained the Vehicle; he held the keys to the
Vehicle; he drove the Vehicle 75% of the time; he allowed others to drive the Vehicle
only with his permission; and his possessions were recovered from the Vehicle. In this
Court’s view, this is a sufficient showing of possessory interest to confer standing. The
government’s motion to dismiss is therefore denied.
Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment is appropriate if “the movant shows that there is no genuine
dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of
law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit
under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct.
2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). An issue of material fact is “genuine” if “the evidence is
such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.
In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the evidence and the inferences
drawn from the evidence must be "viewed in the light most favorable to the party
opposing the motion." Addickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 158-59, 90 S.
Ct.1598, 1609, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142 (1970). "Only when reasonable minds could not differ
as to the import of evidence is summary judgment proper." Bryant v. Maffucci, 923 F.2d
979, 982 (2d Cir. 1991). The function of the court is not “to weigh the evidence and
determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for
trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. “Assessments of credibility and choices between
conflicting versions of the events are matters for the jury, not for the court on summary
judgment.” Rule v. Brine, Inc., 85 F.3d 1002, 1011 (2d Cir. 1996).
But a “mere scintilla of evidence” in favor of the nonmoving party will not defeat
summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. A nonmoving party must do more than
cast a “metaphysical doubt” as to the material facts; it must “offer some hard evidence
showing that its version of the events is not wholly fanciful.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co.
v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986);
D’Amico v. City of N.Y., 132 F.3d 145, 149 (2d Cir. 1998). That is, there must be
evidence from which the jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving party. Anderson,
477 U.S. at 252.
Civil Forfeiture Standards
On April 25, 2000, Congress enacted the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of
2000 (“CAFRA”), Pub. L. No. 106–185, 114 Stat. 202 (2000), which significantly
amended the procedures for civil forfeiture proceedings.
Under CAFRA, the
government must prove its right to asset forfeiture by a preponderance of the evidence.
18 U.S.C. § 983(c)(1); see also United States v. $557,933.89, More or Less, In U.S.
Funds, 287 F.3d 66, 76 n.5 (2d Cir. 2002); United States v. $49,766.29 U.S. Currency,
No. 01-CV-191E(SC), 2003 WL 21383277, at *3 (W.D.N.Y. Jan. 22, 2003); cf. United
States v. 4492 S. Livonia Rd., 889 F.2d 1258, 1267 (2d Cir. 1989) (outlining the
previous burden-shifting framework under which the government first had to establish
probable cause that an asset was subject to forfeiture before the claimant then bore the
burden of rebutting this showing).
The Second Circuit has made clear that the “heightened burden of proof” now
rests “solely with the Government to show by a preponderance of the evidence, rather
than mere probable cause, that the [property is] subject to forfeiture.” United States v.
Sum of $185,336.07 U.S. Currency Seized From Citizen’s Bank Account L7N-01967,
No. 08-CV-6287L, 2014 WL 2575308, at *1 (W.D.N.Y. June 9, 2014)(citing United
States v. Sum of $185,336.07 U.S. Currency Seized from Citizen's Bank Account
L7N01967, 731 F.3d 189, 195-96 (2d Cir. 2013)). Unlike the pre-CAFRA framework,
the burden of proof never shifts to the claimant. See $557,933.89, More or Less, In
U.S. Funds, 287 F.3d at 79 (“[i]f the government fails to meet its burden of proof . . . the
claimant need not produce any evidence at all—i.e., the claimant has no ‘case’ that he
must present or ‘elements' to which he bears the burden of proof”).
Accordingly, under CAFRA,
[i]n a suit or action brought under any civil forfeiture statute
for the civil forfeiture of any property—(1) the burden of proof
is on the Government to establish, by a preponderance of
the evidence, that the property is subject to forfeiture; (2) the
Government may use evidence gathered after the filing of a
complaint for forfeiture to establish, by a preponderance of
the evidence, that property is subject to forfeiture; and (3) if
the Government's theory of forfeiture is that the property was
used to commit or facilitate the commission of a criminal
offense, or was involved in the commission of a criminal
offense, the Government shall establish that there was a
substantial connection between the property and the
18 U.S.C. § 983(c); see also Sum of $185,336.07, 2014 WL 2575308, at *2 (When “’the
Government's theory of forfeiture is that the property was used to commit or facilitate
the commission of a [specific] criminal offense, or was involved in the commission of a
[specific] criminal offense, the Government shall establish that there was a substantial
connection between the property and the offense.’”) (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 983(c)(3))
(alterations in original).
Thus, CAFRA “replaced the existing ‘nexus standard’ with the more rigorous
‘substantial connection’ test.” Sum of $185,336.07, 2014 WL 2575308, at *1 (quoting
Sum of $185,336.07, 731 F.3d at 195-96). “’Under the substantial connection test, the
property either must be used or intended to be used to commit a crime, or must facilitate
the commission of a crime.
At minimum, the property must have more than an
incidental or fortuitous connection to criminal activity.’” United States v. $7,679.00 U.S.
Currency, Nos. 13-CV-7272A, 13-CV-1057A, 2016 WL 1258348, at *6 (W.D.N.Y. Mar.
31, 2016) (quoting United States v. Schifferli, 895 F.2d 987, 990 (4th Cir. 1990)).
But where the Government seeks forfeiture pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(6) on
a theory that the property constitutes proceeds “traceable to” an exchange for narcotics,
it need not prove that there is a substantial connection between the property and any
specific drug transaction. Sum of $185,336.07, 2014 WL 2575308, at *2. Rather, “the
Government may prove more generally, based on a totality of the circumstances, that
the property is substantially connected to narcotics trafficking.” Id. (quoting United
States v. United States Currency in the Sum of One Hundred Eighty–Five Thousand
Dollars more or less, 455 F. Supp. 2d 145, 149 (E.D.N.Y. 2006)); see also United States
v. $60,020.00 U.S. Currency, 41 F. Supp. 3d 277, 287 (W.D.N.Y. 2011) (explaining that
when seeking forfeiture on a proceeds theory, the government need not show a
substantial connection between the property and any specific drug transaction, but may
prove generally that the property is substantially connected to drug trafficking, based on
a totality of the circumstances).
The Vehicle is Subject to Forfeiture under 21 U.S.C. § 881 (a)(4)
Plaintiff first moves for summary judgment under 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(4), alleging
that the Vehicle was used in the facilitation of drug trafficking and that a substantial
connection between the Vehicle and narcotics trafficking exists. Under 21 U.S.C. §
881(a)(4), “[a]ll conveyances, including aircraft, vehicles, or vessels, which are used, or
are intended for use, to transport, or in any manner to facilitate the transportation, sale,
receipt, possession, or concealment of property described in paragraph (1), (2), or (9)”
are subject to forfeiture. 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(4). Under this theory of forfeiture the
government must establish that there was a substantial connection between the
property and the offense. 18 U.S.C. § 983(c)(3); Sum of $185,336.07, 731 F.3d at 19596.
Here, Payne does not dispute that officers smelled marijuana in the Vehicle and
then discovered 15 bags of marijuana (totaling approximately 7.5 pounds) and other
drugs in the Vehicle. He also does not dispute that Shateek Payne and the other
occupants in the vehicle were known to law enforcement and had past controlled
substances convictions. Although Payne disputes whether Shateek Payne possessed
the marijuana, that is of no moment, because the undisputed evidence establishes that
the Vehicle was used to illegally facilitate, transport, or possess controlled substances.
The government has therefore established by a preponderance of the evidence that
there is a substantial connection between the Vehicle and drug trafficking. Thus, the
government is entitled to summary judgment on the issue of whether the Vehicle is
subject to forfeiture under 21 U.S.C. § 881 (a)(4). It is. 3
Payne has Provided Insufficient Evidence that he is an Innocent Owner
Having determined that the government is entitled to take the Vehicle in forfeiture
under 21 U.S.C. § 881 (a)(4), the only remaining issue is whether Payne can
nevertheless defeat forfeiture by establishing that he is an innocent owner of the
To prevent forfeiture, a claimant who has standing “may either rebut the
government's proof of a substantial connection or raise an innocent owner defense
under CAFRA.” United States v. $421,090.00 in U.S. Currency, No. 11-CV-00341(JG),
2011 WL 3235632, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. July 27, 2011) (quoting Von Hofe v. United States,
Because the Vehicle is subject to forfeiture under 21 U.S.C. § 881 (a)(4), it is unnecessary to
determine whether the Vehicle is also forfeitable under 21 U.S.C. § 881 (a)(6).
492 F.3d 175, 180 (2d Cir. 2007)). An innocent-owner defense is an affirmative defense
to be proven by the claimant by a preponderance of the evidence. See United States v.
One Parcel of Prop., Located at 755 Forest Rd., Northford, Conn., 985 F.2d 70, 72 (2d
Cir. 1993); 18 U.S.C. § 938(d)(1).
An “innocent owner” is one 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 circumstance to terminate such use of the
property.” 18 U.S.C. § 983 (d)(2)(A).
On the first element, “where an owner has engaged in ‘willful blindness' as to the
activities occurring on her property, her ignorance will not entitle her to avoid forfeiture.”
United States v. Collado, 348 F.3d 323, 327 (2d Cir. 2003)(quoting One Parcel of
Property, Located at 755 Forest Rd., Northford, Conn., 985 F.2d at 72).
On the second element, a person may show that he or she did all that reasonably
could be expected to terminate use of the property by giving:
(I) [ ] timely notice to an appropriate law enforcement agency
of information that led the person to know the conduct giving
rise to a forfeiture would occur or has occurred; and
(II) in a timely fashion revoked or made a good faith attempt
to revoke permission for those engaging in such conduct to
use the property or took reasonable actions in consultation
with a law enforcement agency to discourage or prevent the
illegal use of the property.
18 U.S.C. § 983 (d)(2)(B)(i).
Here, Payne has offered no evidence to establish either element of the innocentowner defense.
On the first element, far from not knowing of Shateek Payne’s
involvement in illegal controlled substances activities, Payne testified at his deposition
that he was well aware of it. For example, Payne testified that he knew Shateek Payne
had previously been incarcerated for controlled substances offenses, that he had
previously bailed Shateek Payne out of jail, that he knew that Shateek Payne was
previously arrested and indicted for selling crack cocaine, and that he knew Shateek
Payne smoked marijuana and had been in drug-treatment programs. (Payne Dep., pp.
26, 27-28, 29, 32, 34, 35, 44, 45.) Payne offers no evidence whatsoever that he was
unaware of Shateek Payne’s illegal controlled substances activities. He therefore fails
to carry his burden on the first element of the innocent owner defense.
On the second element---that Payne did all that reasonably could be expected
under the circumstance to terminate Shateek Payne’s use of the Vehicle---Payne again
fails to carry his burden. He has presented no evidence whatsoever that he either
notified an appropriate law enforcement agency of Shateek Payne’s illegal activities or
revoked or attempted to revoke permission for Shateek Payne to use the Vehicle or
took reasonable actions in consultation with a law enforcement agency to discourage or
prevent the illegal use of the Vehicle. See 18 U.S.C. § 983 (d)(2)(B)(i). Accordingly,
Payne has also failed to carry his burden on the second element of the innocent owner
Because Payne has failed to present evidence from which it could be found by a
preponderance of the evidence that he is an innocent owner of the Vehicle, the
government is entitled to summary judgment on that issue.
Payne has set forth sufficient evidence of standing to defeat the government’s
motion to dismiss.
He has not, however, come forth with sufficient evidence to
withstand the government’s motion for summary judgment.
As detailed above, the
government is entitled to summary judgment on the issue of forfeitability and Payne has
presented no evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could determine that he is an
innocent owner under the governing statute. Accordingly, the government is entitled to
forfeiture of the Vehicle.
IT HEREBY IS ORDERED, that the government’s Motion for Summary
Judgment, or in the alternative, to Dismiss (Docket No. 22), is GRANTED in part and
DENIED in part. The request for summary judgment is granted. The request to dismiss
FURTHER, that the Clerk of Court is directed to enter judgment in favor of the
FURTHER, that the Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this case.
December 30, 2016
Buffalo, New York
/s/William M. Skretny
WILLIAM M. SKRETNY
United States District Judge
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