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CA Court Orders Return of Cash and Cars to Criminal Defendants

Client Alert

CALIFORNIA COURT ORDERS RETURN OF CASH AND CARS TO CRIMINAL DEFENDANTS IN ADMINISTRATIVE FORFEITURE CASES

Administrative Forfeiture Under Health & Safety Code § 11488.4(j) Must Be Initiated by Office of County District Attorney or Attorney General

Ramirez v. Tulare County District Attorney’s Office, et al.

Case Overview

Last week, the Court of Appeal for the Fifth District decided a number of consolidated cases in favor of criminal suspects and defendants who petitioned to have returned to them cash and vehicles, lawfully seized by law enforcement officers for narcotics related offenses.  In each case, law enforcement seized personal property under Health & Safety Code section 11488.4(j) for state law narcotics violations, presented the suspects with a receipt for the property, and presented a notice for administrative forfeiture.  In each case, the suspects did not contest the notice, and the district attorney issued declarations of administrative forfeiture.  The suspects petitioned for the return of their property.

Holdings

The Court held that the forfeitures were invalid.  Citing prior cases requiring a strict reading of state forfeiture statutes, the Court noted that Section 11488.4(j), on its face, requires initiation of the administrative forfeiture process by the Attorney General, or the district attorney’s office, not by law enforcement officers.  And the value of the property must not exceed $25,000.  Accordingly, the Court ordered the personal property returned to the petitioners.

Since the Court invalidated the forfeitures at the outset, the petitioners were not required to file a claim for return of the property under the state forfeiture statutes (called “exhaustion of administrative remedies”).  Further, since the petitions sought recovery of specific property and not money damages, the petitioners did not have to file a claim under the Government Claims Act prior to filing their petitions.  Moreover, the Court held that petitioners had three (3) years to file their petitions, per Code of Civil Procedure section 338(c)(1), with time starting either by the alleged unlawful seizure, or upon issuance of the declarations of forfeiture by the district attorney.

Agency Impacts

This decision makes clear that law enforcement agencies must coordinate with their district attorney or the Attorney General when attempting to initiate an administrative forfeiture under Section 11488.4(j), as these agencies are the only ones authorized to issue an order of administrative forfeiture.  Such an order must comply with all of the notice requirements of Section 11488.4(c), (d), (e), (f), and (j)(1)-(5).  Any policy, practice, or procedure that fails to comply with these requirements may put otherwise valid forfeitures at risk for return.  Additionally, the claim filing requirements of the Government Claims Act will not insulate an agency from possible liability, and criminal suspects have three (3) years from the date or seizure (if they allege that the seizure was unlawful), or from the date that the district attorney issues notice of the administrative seizure (if the seizure was lawful), which may extend the filing time by months, or even years.

Note that this case involves administrative forfeitures under California law.  Forfeitures in connection with joint local/federal task forces operating under federal law are not affected.

For further information, please contact G. Ross Trindle, III, or Glen E. Tucker from Aleshire & Wynder's Litigation Practice Group at (949) 223-1170.

Disclaimer:  Aleshire & Wynder, LLP legal alerts are not intended as legal advice.  Additional facts or future developments may affect subjects contained herein.  Please seek legal advice before acting or relying upon any information in this communication.