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United States v. One 2015 Dodge Challenger

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

July 23, 2018



          Graham C. Mullen, United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the court upon four pending motions in this case. The motions are now ripe for disposition.

         I. Background

         On September 18, 2017, the Government filed a Complaint for Forfeiture In Rem against a 2015 Dodge Challenger (the “vehicle”). The Complaint alleges that agents discovered, during the course of a drug investigation, that the vehicle, while in the possession of Ramona Gales, was used to transport chemicals used to cut cocaine and that nine ounces of cocaine were found inside the vehicle. Gales was arrested on state drug charges, and the Government alleges that the vehicle is subject to forfeiture under 21 U.S.C. § 881(a), (h), as a vehicle used or intended to be used to transport or facilitate the “transportation, sale, receipt, possession, or concealment” of a controlled substance or a raw material used for manufacturing or processing a controlled substance.

         The Government served individuals who reasonably appeared to be potential claimants in the vehicle and posted Notice of Civil Forfeiture on an official government internet site for at least 30 consecutive days, pursuant to Rule G(4) of the Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Actions. On December 4, 2017, Roslyn Sanchez (“Claimant”), acting pro se, filed a claim for the vehicle. Claimant asserted that she was the true owner of the vehicle-not her daughter, Ramona Gales. Claimant further asserted that Gales was innocent and had been wrongfully charged in the state proceedings.

         On February 21, 2018, the Government filed a Motion to Strike the Claim (Doc. No. 6) on the grounds that Claimant failed to file an answer to the Complaint within 21 days of filing her claim. On March 5, 2018, Claimant responded to the Motion to Strike and again asserted her ownership interest in the vehicle. Further, Claimant stated that Gales had been found not guilty of the charges against her, and that a detective testified at her trial that “No Drugs were found in the 2015 Dodge Challenger.” On March 12, 2018, Claimant filed a pro se Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 11), claiming that Claimant was the rightful owner of the vehicle, that Gales was found not guilty of the alleged charges involving the vehicle, and that the officers testified that no drugs were found in the vehicle. On that same day, Ramona Gales filed a pro se Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 12). The Government responded to Claimant's Motion to Dismiss, and then filed a Motion to Strike Gales' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 17). Claimant filed a reply in support of her Motion to Dismiss on April 25, 2018.

         Additionally, Claimant filed an answer to the Complaint on March 20, 2018.

         II. Analysis

         A. Motion to Strike Claim of Roslyn Sanchez

         The Court will first address the Government's Motion to Strike the Claim (Doc. No. 6). After the Government has properly provided notice of an in rem action and an individual asserting an interest in the property has timely contested the forfeiture by filing a claim, the individual must then serve and file an answer to the complaint or a Rule 12 motion within twenty-one days of filing the claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. Supp. R. G(5)(b). A claim may be stricken for failing to comply with Rule G(5). Fed.R.Civ.P. Supp. R. G(8)(c)(i)(A).

         “Although courts strictly adhere to these requirements and will strike a claim if a claimant fails to file a timely answer, in certain circumstances, especially in cases where the claimant is proceeding pro se, a court may excuse minor procedural failings provided the underlying goals of the Supplemental Rules are not frustrated.” United States v. $6, 357.00 in U.S. Currency, No. 1:11-cv-29, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116117, at *3 (W.D. N.C. Oct. 6, 2011) (internal citations omitted). Courts have considered the following factors in determining whether or not to excuse a procedural error: “the claimant's good faith attempts to comply with procedural requirements; the date upon which the claimant received notice of the pending forfeiture action; any requests by the claimant to amend the pleadings or for an extension of time; any reasons proffered by the claimant for the omission; and whether prejudice to the United States will result.” United States v. All Assets Held at Bank Julius Baer & Co., Ltd., 664 F.Supp.2d 97, 102 (D.D.C. 2009). Additional factors include whether the court and the government received notice of the interest in the property before the deadline, United States v. Thirty-Five Firearms, 123 Fed.Appx. 204, 207 (6th Cir. 2005), other attempts to defend the claim and the length of the delay caused by the procedural error, United States v. $22, 226.25 in Interbank FX Account No. xxx0172, 763 F.Supp.2d 944, 949 (E.D. Tenn. 2011), and whether the purpose of the answer to raise “the claims and defenses which the claimant believes support the assertion of his claim to the property” has been otherwise satisfied, United States v. $4, 629.00 in U.S. Currency, 359 F.Supp.2d 504, 507 (W.D. Va. 2005).

         Here, Claimant timely filed her claim following the Government's publication but failed to file an answer to the Complaint within twenty-one days of the filing of her claim-here, by December 25, 2017. The Court finds, however, in light of the factors listed above, that Claimant's procedural error should be excused. Claimant put the Government on notice of her claims and defenses in her initial claim, providing factual support and documentation in opposition to the forfeiture. Since the initial claim, Claimant has consistently attempted to defend her property interest, and she has since filed both a motion to dismiss the action and an answer to the Complaint. The Court further finds that the Government has not been prejudiced by the Claimant's delay, which totaled only two and a half months between the deadline to file an answer and Claimant's filing of a motion to dismiss. As a result, the Court finds that Claimant has attempted in good faith to comply with the rules and that an excuse of this procedural error will not frustrate the purposes of the Supplemental Rules.

         Thus, the Court will deny the Government's first Motion to Strike.

         B. Motion to Strike Ramona ...

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